Wisconsin court case dismissal "enormously important"

2012-02-13 Vatican Radio

Attorneys for the victim in a Wisconsin sex abuse case voluntarily withdrew a lawsuit against the Holy See on Friday, in which Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinals Tarcisio Bertone and Angelo Sodano, the Secretary of State and Secretary of State-emeritus, respectively, were named as defendants.

“I think it is enormously important that this case is not longer on the docket, because this was the case centred on revelations about Father Lawrence Murphy who allegedly abused almost 200 kids at a school for the deaf in the Milwaukee area from 1950 until 1974,” said John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.

“This was the case that triggered the global media firestorm in early 2010 that led to a very incendiary front page piece in the New York Times suggesting that the Vatican and Pope Benedict had failed to respond aggressively to the crisis, and really did galvanize and shift public perceptions in very important ways,” he told Vatican Radio. “So that fact that this case has now in a sense died on the vine does mark the end of what has been a very important chapter in this story.”

Attorney for the Holy See, Jeffrey S. Lena called the original claim “outworn and discredited” in a statement released on Friday.

“Mythology about the Catholic Church to the contrary, the Holy See is not responsible for the supervision of the more than 400,000 priests around the world,” he said. “Attorneys in this case knew that, and their knowledge of this fact is precisely what made the filing of this lawsuit so pernicious in the first place -- such misuse of the legal process leads to disrespect for lawyers and courts, and never helps the pursuit of legitimate legal claims.”

Lena also said the plight of abuse victims must never be forgotten.

“As Pope Benedict XVI has repeatedly said, abuse -- whether in public or private institutions, by whomever, and of whatever creed or religious affiliation -- is a sin and a crime,” he said.



Listen to the full interview by Charles Collins with John Allen (transcript below):

Q: What is the significance of the dismissal if the Milwaukee case against the Holy See?

Allen: Well it should be said that the attorneys who originally filed the lawsuit have described the decision to withdraw the case as a purely practical move. One they say, they got most of the documents they wanted from a separate lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, and two they say they want to concentrate on a similar lawsuit they’ve got against the Vatican in Oregon. So they are playing down the significance of it, but that said, I think it is enormously important that this case is not longer on the docket, because this was the case centred on revelations about Father Lawrence Murphy who allegedly abused almost 200 kids at a school for the deaf in the Milwaukee area from 1950 until 1974. This was the case that triggered the global media firestorm in early 2010 that led to a very incendiary front page piece in the New York Times suggesting that the Vatican and Pope Benedict had failed to respond aggressively to the crisis, and really did galvanize and shift public perceptions in very important ways. So that fact that this case has now in a sense died on the vine does mark the end of what has been a very important chapter in this story.”

Q: The Holy See’s attorney mentioned there has been some confusion going on because of the difference between canon law and civil law. How important is this distinction in people’s understanding of the issues?

Allen: The distinction between Church law and civil law is important, and it is often misunderstood. At the heart of this case in Milwaukee, and it is has been at the heart of other complaints against the Vatican, is a document titled “Crimen sollicitationis”, originally issued in 1922 and then updated in 1962, which outlined church procedures for handling abuses of the confessional, including sexual solicitation. It’s been touted by many people as a smoking gun proving there was a kind of a Vatican cover-up of these cases, because it calls for them to be handled confidentially. Now the misunderstanding there is that this had to do with the Church’s internal discipline. The document in no way addressed the question of whether these cases should also be reported as crimes under the civil law, it simply had nothing to do with that. So if you don’t understand that distinction, it is easy to look at this document and see, “Aha! it proves that the Vatican was sweeping this stuff under the rug,” when in reality it had nothing to do with what has become one of the defining questions about this crisis, which is the question of collaboration with civil authorities.”

Q: This decision came just a few days after an event at the Gregorian University about the sexual abuse crisis. Where do we stand now about sexual abuse in the Church? How important was this event last week for this crisis?

Allen: I think the event - which was a four day symposium at the Gregorian University titled Towards Healing and Renewal which was cosponsored by many important offices in the Vatican and attended by senior personnel – I think it was a symbol of the fact that the Church is sort of foursquare now committed to an aggressive response to the scourge of child abuse. But you asked, “Where do we stand?” Look, I think the answer to that question is: The policy problems have largely been solved. A few years ago the questions were things like: Are we going to have a zero tolerance policy for abuse – that is, if church personnel are credibly accused of abuse, will they be removed from the field? We were debating questions like to what extent should we commit ourselves to a policy of full cooperation with civil authorities: that is reporting all of these crimes to the police and the prosecutors and collaborating with their investigations. I think for the most part, those questions have been answered, and they have been answered in favour of the reformed position. So the policy of the Church, both at the Universal level and certainly in the countries most scarred by this crisis – like the United States, Ireland, and Germany – we have strong policies now. So the question no longer is, “What is the policy going to be”; the question is “How universally and thoroughly is it going to be applied?” In those moments when there is a breakdown and a failure, what are the consequences for that? Those are the hard questions which now have to be answered.

Q: What is the role of the media? Many of these cases would never have come to light, and these new policies would not have been put in place, without media exposure. Yet some people also accuse the media of exaggerating or misunderstanding what is going on.

Allen: Look, speaking as a media professional myself, I will tell you we are definitely a mixed bag. I mean that is, if the question is: Is media coverage of the Church – whether if it is about the sex abuse crisis or anything else – is it sometimes scandalistic, is it sometimes exaggerated, is it sometimes unbalanced in an unfair way – the answer to all that is: Yes, of course, and we all know it. Now, if the question is: Has media coverage of the Church – again not just on the sex abuse crisis, but in other things – has that coverage also sometimes galvanized the Church into reforms that it might have taken a lot more time for the Church to arrive at were it were not for that external pressure? Then I think the answer there is also clearly “yes”. I think one of the striking things about this symposium at the Gregorian is that net-net, if you sort of listen to the tone with regard to the media there – it was fundamentally positive. We heard American Cardinal William Levada, who is the head of the Vatican’s powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - which has responsibility under Church law for managing the sex abuse crisis – we heard him say that in many countries around the world that we now look at as pacesetters for the Church’s response for the crisis – places like the United States, and Ireland, and Germany – that had it not been for aggressive media coverage, the Church might well not have adopted the strong policies of which it is now justifiably proud. So look, I don’t think this kind of undertone of concern, and occasional annoyance, about media bias is ever going to go away, but I do think at senior levels there is also an acknowledgement that the kick in the teeth the Church took probably did some good.