JOEL DAVIDSON // CatholicAnchor.org
Father Thomas Brundage, current pastor at St. Michael Church in Palmer, was the presiding judge in the now widely publicized canonical trial of a priest accused of abusing deaf children decades ago in Milwaukee. The 1996-98 trial against Father Lawrence Murphy involved numerous charges of child sexual abuse, including solicitation within the confessional, while he was working at St. John’s School for the Deaf from 1950 to 1974.
Father Brundage, now moderator of the curia and judicial vicar in the Archdiocese of Anchorage, wrote a column that appeared March 29 at the Catholic Anchor Web site, in which he attempted to clarify certain aspects of the trial and the Vatican’s involvement in instructing the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to halt the case. The column, which was picked up by major media around the world, can be read at catholicanchor.org/wordpress/?p=601.
The Anchor conducted a follow-up interview with Father Brundage April 8 to clarify some of the many questions surrounding the trial and to explain exactly how the church deals with cases of priestly sex abuse.
When you first took on this case in 1996, did you ever think it would turn into an issue of global concern for the Catholic Church?
Yes, simply because of the numbers and because we were dealing with a very special community – that is a community that literally did not have a voice. But in fact, this story has broken several times in the press. It broke first in 1974, when cars at Sunday Mass at St. Johns Cathedral in Milwaukee were leafleted by members of the deaf community making accusations against Father Murphy. I know the police were contacted but it’s my understanding they did not follow up because of the statute of limitations.
You mentioned before that it had been common knowledge that some sort of abuse had occurred by Father Murphy but that nothing had been done by civil authorities or by the church.
I wouldn’t agree with that way of stating it. There were rumors about something happening. I had no concrete knowledge other than rumors and it is hard to act on rumors. I only came onto the scene into a position of authority as head of the tribunal in 1995 and my first real knowledge of the case came when I met with some of the victims in 1996. It didn’t take long after that to start a trial. We’ve been criticized for going too slowly during that 18-month period, however, Father Murphy had a right to a defense and legal processes, by their very nature, tend to be tedious and slow. Just like a civil judge, any tribunal judge is looking over his back to make sure he is dotting all his I’s to make the case as appeal proof as possible
What did the victims want to see happen from a trial?
In meeting with the deaf community there were two things I remember that were bottom-line issues. First was that Father Murphy be removed from the priesthood and second that he not be allowed to be buried in his priestly robes.
Can you explain why, in 1996, the Milwaukee Archdiocese contacted the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the faith, which was then headed Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future pope?
The CDF was contacted because there were two different charges in this case. One was solicitation in the confessional. The other was sexual abuse of minors. For that first charge, the competent body at the Holy See was the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.
What did you want to know?
The main thing was, we didn’t even know if we could start a trial because at that point in history there was a 30-day statute of limitations and these crimes were already from 20 years ago. We asked for a waiver and received one. I only remember one other case that received such a sweeping waiver. That showed me the Vatican was really serious about this case.
Current Archbishop of Milwaukee Jerome Listecki apologized April 1 for mistakes made in the Father Murphy case on the archdiocesan level. What do you think the archdiocese could have done differently?
In 1974, when this case became known, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee did have a tribunal and the case could have, theoretically, been brought to the tribunal. Why it was not, I don’t know.
How about when you took the case in 1996? Do you think you could have done anything better then?
My greatest regret is that Father Murphy managed to die before we completed the trial. Had he died, removed from the priesthood and not buried in his priestly robes, that would have done so much good.
So do you think the Murphy trial should have been halted?
Hindsight is 20/20. On Rome’s behalf – and remember this was prior to the huge revelations of sex abuse in 2002 – I think Rome was trying to show clemency to a dying man. I think that was their point of view. But what I know now and the way I feel now, I don’t think he deserved it.
Sitting as a judge in that case, what did you experience as the greatest challenge?
Some of the members of the deaf community told me that one of the reasons this case did not come out faster and stronger, earlier, was because the deaf community already feels different and they thought that by exposing this it would embarrass their own community. Over the years, however, this aversion to having publicity on this case has eroded and justly so.
One of my concerns about the trial was that it was almost like re-victimizing the victims because I had to have them come in and tell me these very hard stories. Yet, we proceeded with the trial because that was the wish of the deaf community and Archbishop Weakland and I were in concurrency with that.
But in 1998 you had direct orders from Archbishop Weakland, via the Vatican to stop the case. It that right?
The documents seem to support that, yes.
At that time, the idea of defrocking Father Murphy was over, right? There was no chance of defrocking him once the trial was ordered to halt?
No. If Father Murphy had recovered, we could have reopened the case. Abatement does not halt the case permanently. In order for the case to be permanently stopped, it would have to be suppressed. This is an important technical distinction. Had Father Murphy survived his illness and been restored to health, we could have written back to the Holy See and informed them of the restoration of health. Knowing what I know now, I’m sure we would have continued with the trial and brought it to an end. But once again, Murphy died an ill-timed death.
What is the process of defrocking a priest?
Basically, an accusation has to be made. If it is criminal in nature, in most dioceses in the United States, the police are contacted immediately. That is the first thing you do. Then you go in one of multiple different directions depending on what the priest does or does not admit to. Simultaneously an independent review board, which almost every diocese has, looks at the case. They are independent of the power of the bishop. They do their own review of the case and offer advice on how we might be able to address it. Part of this depends on the priest. If the allegations are criminal and they are substantiated, if the priest is willing to comply with us, we would do a laicization process. It is the same thing as being defrocked. At the end of the day, you no longer have the rights and responsibilities of a priest. A lot of men did leave the priesthood at that time and I remember having some conversations with priests who were credibly accused and I basically said to them, “We can do this the easy way or the hard way but we will wind up in the same place.” Most times they would voluntarily seek laicization.
However, the priest does have a right to a defense. There have been some false accusations, but in my experience, most accusations are true.
So Father Murphy must have been unwilling to undergo laicization?
Exactly. Father Murphy was in a lot of denial about the harm that he had done. Somehow he thought that because he had been free of these crimes for 20 or more years he had a right to remain in the priesthood.
While Father Murphy was not given any more official parish assignments after 1974, he was not defrocked. I think it is difficult to understand why a priest who was credibly enough accused that the diocese refused to give him any more official assignments, still was not barred from the priesthood.
It is difficult for me to believe. That is the bottom line. If I were the bishop of the day, I would have applied for laicization for Father Murphy. However, there is a school of thought that says as long as a man is a priest, you have some control over him. Some of the concerns of laicizing child sex abusers is that you cut him out of the church and then what?
In your column that appeared March 29th on the Catholic Anchor Web site, you note that in 2001 the authority to hear clergy sex abuse cases was transferred to the Vatican’s Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, which was headed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who later became Pope Benedict XVI. In the column, you praise the future pope for changes he orchestrated that made it easier to address sex abuse cases in a timely manner. On a local level, as a tribunal judge in Milwaukee, how were these cases processed differently after Cardinal Ratzinger’s office took control of them?
We’re not talking about a lot of cases because I stopped being the Judicial Vicar in 2003 so the window there is only two years. I’m not privy what happened after I departed.
But in the cases that I did, I found they were handled fairly and were going much quicker. Previously, cases sometimes languished in the Roman Rota for years at a time. The Roman Rota is one of two supreme courts in the church. When Cardinal Ratzinger took over the competency to deal with these cases, it was almost a night and day difference. I think most of my colleagues would agree.
It has been noted in a number of press reports that in past decades, many in the church and in society at large thought it was viable option to address sexual abuse by simply giving the abusive person therapy treatments before letting them resume their work. It seems there has been a pretty major change – especially when you look at the U.S. bishops’ 2002 document that basically says you have one strike and you’re out of the priesthood.
Today, every one of us priests knows that even an unfounded accusation will sidelined us until we can be vindicated. We are all under that burden, but the church has made so many mistakes in the past that we are willing to accept burdens like that.
Some have accused the church of being overly concerned about creating scandal by bringing priests to trial. This comes up in the Father Murphy case when Vatican officials expressed concern that the trial entailed crimes that were committed decades ago and it would require bringing in many witnesses, which would also need interpreters. The concern was that this might make it difficult to avoid creating widespread scandal. Can you explain this concern of minimizing scandal and why church trials are not public?
It does go back to the issue of scandal. We all know that it is wrong for anyone to abuse a child. It is even more wrong for a clergyman or anyone in a respected position. I do think the result of the trial is in fact public – the person in laicized and removed from the priesthood. But going beyond the issue of scandal, there is also a concern for the privacy of victims. Some of this information from victims is very, very privileged – they are telling exactly how they were abused.
In these matters there is also collateral damage. First, there are horrific crimes against the victims. Making that worse is the fact that some of these crimes took place in the confessional. But sex abuse also affects the victims’ families and even the court personnel. It affected me and does to this day. It also affects the interpreters in these meetings. I’m not comparing the collateral damage to the damage done to the victim but this is part of the untold story of what abuse does. It is toxic. Anytime you get close to it, it is poisonous.
What positive impact might come out of so much press about this case and other cases of sex abuse within the church?
As hard as it is to say, had the press not pressed so hard, especially starting around 2002 with the Boston eruption, a lot of this stuff might not have come out. This is corruption and it needed to come out. The other possible blessing is that there is a ton of child sexual abuse in society as a whole. People can look to the Catholic Church to see what mistakes to avoid because we sure made plenty.
In recent weeks, several Vatican officials and bishops have said that part of the media interest over sex abuse allegations is born of an effort to discredit the church because it stands for things that are diametrically opposed to a lot of the ideas in popular culture. Most notably are the teachings about marriage as the union of one man and one woman, the sanctity of life from birth to natural death, and the church’s teaching about human sexuality when it comes to birth control and contraception. In your experience with reporters recently, how accurate are these claims?
It is a combination. There is a justified horror in finding out what happened in these sex abuse cases. Some journalists are really trying to get the story right. There are some really fine journalists out there. Over the last couple weeks, I do think the frenzy has also feed into those who want to destroy the papacy and by extension the church itself.
One of the little reported facts in all of the recent stories about clergy sex abuse is that the latest report by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops shows that there were only six cases of reported child sex abuse that actually occurred in 2009. The other claims are from instances that happened decades ago.
When you look at the number of priests in the United States and look at the kind of spotlight we are under, what this shows me is that the reforms that began in the late 1980’s are working. Those reforms started making a difference in the 1990s because there have not been many reported cases since then.
Seminarians are now tightly scrutinized prior to admission to the seminary. Most dioceses spend several thousand dollars in psychosexual testing. A whole new generation of priests have undergone that type of inspection.