The Suit Against Pope Benedict in the Pedophile Priest Scandal

May 14, 2010 - by Don Fulsom

Updated Sept. 19, 2011 and Feb.14, 2013

Pope Benedict XVI

 Pope Benedict XVI

As the scandal over pedophile priests rocks Roman Catholic dioceses around the globe, a lawsuit filed April 10, 2010 in U.S. District Court in Milwaukee names Pope Benedict XVI as a defendant. And with good cause.

By Don Fulsom

Update: Pope Benedict XVI's startling decision to resign at the end of February 2013 may put him at even greater risk of prosecution. Australian human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson notes that, in retirement, Benedict's absolute immunity from legal action as a head of state vanishes. "There are many victims of priests permitted by (then) Cardinal Ratzinger to stay in holy orders after their propensity to molest was known, and they would like to sue the ex-Pope for damages for negligence," Robertson writes in the British newspaper The Independent.

"If he steps outside the Vatican," Robertson adds, "a court may rule that (the victims) have a case." The legal expert contends Benedict's "command responsibility" goes back to 1981 – when, as Cardinal Ratzinger, he took over the Vatican body that punishes errant priests.

Another major critic of Benedict – the first pope to quit the papacy in nearly 600 years – describes the outgoing pontiff's record on sex abuse as "terrible." David Clohessy, executive director of the 12,000-member Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests, tells The Guardian: “He knows more about clergy sex crimes and cover-ups than anyone else in the Church, yet he has done precious little to protect children.”

Update: The Center for Constitutional Rights and the Survivors Network of those abused by Priests filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court in The Hague on September 13, 2011, urging the prosecution of Pope Benedict XVI and three Vatican cardinals for abetting and covering up the rape and sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests.

A spokesperson at the court said the complaint would be examined “to analyze whether the alleged crimes fall under the court’s jurisdiction.” 

The International Criminal Court has jurisdiction over war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide committed after July 1, 2002, the date the court was created. 

The 80-page complaint cited five cases involving priests accused of sexually abusing minors in the United States and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  The priests referenced are from the United States, India and Belgium.

Pamela Spees, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, said she hoped to persuade the International Criminal Court that the sexual abuse cases are within the court’s jurisdiction because they involve crimes that were “systemic and widespread.”  She said the filing of the complaint was necessary because all the investigations and prosecutions of sexual abuse by priests in various countries had not worked to prevent continuing crimes and cover-ups by the Catholic Church. 

In the complaint, two victims are cited who say the priests who abused them were moved by church superiors to other countries and are still in ministry and working with children. 

“National jurisdictions can’t really get their arms around this,” Spees said.  “Prosecuting individual instances of child molestation or sexual assault has not gotten at the larger systemic problem here.  Accountability is the goal and the International Criminal Court makes the most sense, given that it’s a global problem.” 

Rev. Federico Lombardi, spokesperson for the Vatican, told The New York Times he had no comment about the filing.  Legal experts quoted in the newspaper said they doubted the ICC would take up the case.

As the scandal over pedophile priests rocks Roman Catholic dioceses around the globe, a lawsuit filed April 10, 2010 in U.S. District Court in Milwaukee names Pope Benedict XVI as a defendant.  In some ways, the suit is reminiscent of the Halloween morning in 1517 when an obscure Augustinian monk by the name of Martin Luther had the temerity to protest the Vatican’s rampant corruption by nailing 95 written complaints to the doors of the Wittenberg Cathedral. 

The lawsuit had good reason to name the Pope personally. Prior to being elected pope in April of 2005, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had served since 1981 as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a role that placed him in charge of the Vatican’s dealings with all priests accused of sexual abuse.  As a result, no one in the Catholic Church hierarchy had more influence on how the hundreds, if not thousands, of sexual abuse violations were handled by the Holy See.

In addition to the Pope, the Milwaukee suit names as defendants Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Cardinal Angelo Sodano and the Holy See. Bertone was deputy to Cardinal Ratzinger, the future pope, at the time of an allegedly inadequate investigation of a Milwaukee priest in the mid-1990s. Cardinal Sodano was the Vatican's secretary of state.

The lawsuit claims that Ratzinger, Bertone and Sodano, now the dean of the College of Cardinals, all knew about the child abuse allegations against the priest, but kept them secret.

The 55-page suit, filed by lawyer Jeff Anderson, asks the church to release all of its files on abuse cases against priests—including the names of the offenders.  Those names would be turned over to law enforcement authorities. 

The lawsuit blames the 83-year-old pontiff for helping hide a particularly revolting chapter in the widening scandal.  It charges that Pope Benedict—while the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—helped cover up the sexual abuse of minors by a Wisconsin priest. That priest, the late Father Lawrence Murphy, admitted molesting at least 200 defenseless children at a school for the deaf in suburban Milwaukee from 1950 to 1974. 

The suit also seeks a jury trial. And it requests unspecified monetary damages for an unnamed victim of Murphy.  The plaintiff has pledged to donate any monetary award to a fund to be shared by Murphy's victims.

Described by columnist Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic as “an unrepentant multiple rapist of deaf children,” Father Murphy preyed on schoolboys on camping trips and in dark dorms—and even in the sanctity of the school’s confessional booth.

Anderson, an attorney based in St. Paul, Minn., told the BBC that the Vatican has been negligent. "What we want the Vatican to do is step up to disgorge the secrets that they have in their files.”  The suit against the Pope claims the Vatican has a secret “centuries-old practice” of ignoring or suppressing abuse charges, and of refusing to cooperate with police.

"Until and unless all of those things are done, there is a grave and serious problem, and all trails and responsibility for that leads to one place, to the Vatican, to the pontiff," Anderson adds.

The Vatican quickly brushed off the suit as a publicity stunt lacking any merit—a suit that merely rehashes theories that have already been rejected by U.S. courts when other plaintiffs have attempted to tie the Vatican to several other priest-pedophilia cases filed in the United States.  Attorneys for the Vatican claim that the Pope is immune from arrest or punishment as a head of state because of a Vatican pact with Mussolini. 

According to the National Law Journal, Anderson has two ways to get around that defense:  "Under a tort exception, he [Anderson] plans to argue that because the Catholic Church allegedly engaged in systematic activity that injured a large number of people in the United States, it subjected itself to the jurisdiction of the United States and can be held liable here. Under a commercial activity exception, he plans to argue that the Catholic Church is a massive business organization, commercially present in the United States, and therefore not immune from litigation."

Jeffrey Lena, a U.S. attorney for the Vatican, said Murphy's victims deserve sympathy—but that the Vatican knew nothing of the crimes until decades later, and isn't responsible for the abuse, according to the Associated Press.

Lena called the Milwaukee suit, “Simply the latest attempt by certain U.S. lawyers to use the judicial process as a tool of media relations."  What Lena meant by “certain U.S. lawyers” is not clear.

After nearly two decades of committing sex crimes against deaf boys in Milwaukee, Murphy was finally moved to another diocese in 1974. He was still allowed to serve in the ministry and work with children in another Wisconsin diocese into the early 1990s.  There were no further allegations of abuse against him.

The Vatican first learned of Murphy’s alleged crimes in a 1995 letter from the unnamed victim in Anderson's suit to then-Vatican Secretary of State Angelo Sodano.  The letter alleged that Murphy molested him for a number of years.  That letter, and a subsequent one from the victim, went unanswered.

Then, in 1996, the Vatican got yet another serious warning about Murphy, this time from inside the church.  Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland himself directly informed Cardinal Ratzinger, in his role as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, of the accusations against Murphy concerning the deaf boys.  Weakland even specified that Murphy had solicited and performed sex in the confessional—an especially grievous canonical crime.

This type of charge, made by an archbishop, should have led to Murphy’s immediate suspension, a thorough review of the charges, and his subsequent defrocking.  Civil authorities should have been informed of the findings and Murphy prosecuted as a multiple felon.  But none of these things happened.  The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith took no known action against the pedophile priest. 

Neither did Cardinal Ratzinger, as the archbishop of Munich in 1980, stand in the way of a Vatican decision to send a separate pedophile priest back to work only days after the priest began therapy for his pedophilia, according to a memo reported in The New York Times.  That priest—a German—was later convicted of molesting boys in another parish.

The case of that priest, the Rev. Peter Hullermann, according to the Times, “has acquired fresh relevance because it unfolded at a time when Cardinal Ratzinger, as archbishop of that priest’s diocese, was in a position to refer the priest for prosecution, or at least to stop him from coming into contact with children.” Instead, Cardinal Ratzinger allowed Hullermann to undergo therapy in Munich and to resume his pastoral duties almost immediately.  Hullermann worked with children in Garching.

In 2008 Hullermann was transferred to a pilgrimage church in Bad Tölz, where, until 2010, he was an active priest. Following news reports this year that Hullermann had gone on a camping trip with some youths in Bavaria, the church finally suspended him. 

Hullermann was convicted of molesting boys in 1986.  He was given an 18-month suspended jail sentence, and the church said he was “forbidden from any work with children.’

Unlike Hullermann, Murphy was never prosecuted … or even defrocked. Court documents suggest that the Vatican refused to discipline the priest because he was a prolific fundraiser.

Murphy died in 1998. He was buried from head to toe in priestly attire. At graveside, a bishop praised the father’s good works here on earth.

An outraged Andrew Sullivan observed: “Murphy was buried in full vestments, and his victims never got justice, and the church had more sympathy with an elderly and dying priest than with the raped souls and bodies of countless children.”

An advocate for abuse victims, Peter Isely, is equally upset with the church—telling a Milwaukee news conference:  “This is the only organization working with children that I know of, on the planet … as a credentialed class (that is) allowed to commit these horrible acts, these crimes against children, and remain in that credentialed class.”

The priest pedophilia scandal has engulfed the Catholic Church for years, costing dioceses throughout the Western World millions of dollars in payments to victims.  New revelations of priest abuse continue to surface, rocking the very foundations of the 2,000-year-old religion.  For the last 30 years, no one more so that Pope Benedict XVI has been at the center of the maelstrom or should feel more responsibility for all the harm its thousands of victims have suffered. 

Not dealing with that responsibility has allowed the priest sex-abuse scandal to become the defining issue of the first five years of Pope Benedict’s papacy.  The bunker mentality within the Vatican itself has only served to exacerbate the problem for the Pope, exposing him to unrelenting criticism from abuse victims and their supporters. Instead of using the immense power and wealth of the papacy to confront the scandal and make amends to its victims, the Vatican hierarchy has dug in its heels to ward off attacks against the Pope, measures that have allowed the cancer that is priest pedophilia to pile up in a godforsaken heap at the Pope’s door atop St. Peter’s Basilica.  

Just how tone deaf the Vatican is to this viral issue was demonstrated twice during Holy Week.  During a Good Friday sermon on April 2, the Pope’s personal preacher, Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa, likened “the scrutiny of the church about the sex-abuse scandal to the persecution of the Jews,” the Wall Street Journal reported.  At Easter Mass in St. Peter’s, with the Pope in attendance, Cardinal Sodano “dismissed scrutiny of the Pope as ‘petty gossip,’” according to the Journal.

Those two off-key statements were in contrast to what Pope Benedict himself had said about the scandal earlier in 2010 when he admitted that the Vatican made grave errors in dealing with sexual abuse among its priests, saying that the church should “do penance” to address its “sins.” 

The Pope came out of his bubble even further on April 17 when he traveled to Malta to meet with abuse victims.  According to Anthony Grafton, writing in the April 28 issue of The New York Review of Books, the Pope “was reportedly tearful in this private encounter, experiencing ‘shame and sorrow’ over what ‘the victims and their families suffered.’”

The embattled Pope would make a stronger statement on May 11 in flight to Lisbon when reporters on board asked him about the sexual abuse scandal.  According to Vatican Radio, the Pope responded to a reporter’s question about the crisis by saying, “the church has a deep need to relearn penance, to accept purification, to learn, on one hand, forgiveness, but also the need for justice.”

According to an article in The New York Times on May 12 that bore the headline “Pope Issues Forceful Statement on Sexual Abuse Crisis,” the Pope told the reporters that the crisis brought on by the scandal was “truly terrifying.” The article further reported that the Pope, “in a marked shift in tone, suggested that its origins lay with abusive priests and with highly placed church officials who for decades concealed or minimized the problem.”

John L. Allen Jr., a Vatican expert and columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, told the Times that the Pope’s in-flight comments to reporters were “as clear an example of the Pope changing the Vatican’s public tone as you’re going to see.”

Maeve Lewis, director of One in Four, a support group for abuse victims in Ireland, told a Wall Street Journal reporter that the Pope’s in-flight remarks marked the “beginning of a shift” toward accountability, a shift away from what she called “a culture of cover-ups which places loyalty and obedience above the interests of child victims.” 

While Pope Benedict at long last was showing signs of getting on top of the sex-abuse scandal, the Vatican’s U.S. attorney, Jeffrey Lena, was telling the Journal that the Pope’s in-flight admissions were an “important statement to the world,” but in his opinion they carried no legal implications in terms of lawsuit pending in the United States.  In reality, what is admissible in court is what a judge rules is admissible.

One way or the other, as a result of his actions as archbishop of Munich or in his long role as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Pope Benedict will remain at the center of the priest pedophilia crisis until he finds a way to resolve it.  This is the central challenge of his papacy and all other initiatives he may have in mind will be consigned to backburners until he faces up to it. 

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