The Clergy Abuse Story Comes Back to the U.S.

Talk about uncanny timing. Yesterday, ProPublica’s new reporter-blogger, Marian Wang, interviewed Walter Robinson, the former Boston Globe investigative journalist who led that paper’s reporting on sexual abuse within the Boston Archdiocese. They discussed separate sex abuse stories that have been roiling Ireland and Germany in recent months, and press efforts to sort out how aware Pope Benedict XVI was of the abuse in Germany, where he served as Cardinal Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger. That lead to this exchange:

It seemed that in the Boston situation, documents were really key to tying higher-ups in the Catholic Church to what was happening with the priests in Boston. Do you think that’s going to be possible elsewhere?

I’ve kind of a mixed mind about that. It depends on the jurisdiction. The amount of public disclosure in heavily Catholic countries has really been minimal.

The exception to that is Ireland. In Ireland the problem was so widespread that eventually—a combination of the victims and finally, with law enforcement which had colluded with the church for years—enough pressure brought to bear that in Ireland there was more disclosure. What’s happening now particularly to Germany and the Netherlands is interesting because the pattern shows that disclosure is much more likely in secular countries. I’m surprised, frankly, it took this long for details to emerge about what happened on the watch of the former archbishop of Munich. In countries like Spain, Portugal, Italy, there’s been virtually no disclosure, but in those countries you have, I think it’s fair to say, the church, government and press, and none of them have an interest in this issue becoming public. In countries in Latin America, the same phenomenon is at work.

This morning, as you probably know, a front page New York Times story reported on yet another abuse case, this one in Wisconsin. The article is grounded in newly-available documents, which seem to make clear the pope did know about credible allegations of abuse, and, along with other Vatican officials, failed to act. From the story:

In 1996, Cardinal Ratzinger failed to respond to two letters about the case from Rembert G. Weakland, Milwaukee’s archbishop at the time. After eight months, the second in command at the doctrinal office, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, now the Vatican’s secretary of state, instructed the Wisconsin bishops to begin a secret canonical trial that could lead to Father Murphy’s dismissal.

But Cardinal Bertone halted the process after Father Murphy personally wrote to Cardinal Ratzinger protesting that he should not be put on trial because he had already repented and was in poor health and that the case was beyond the church’s own statute of limitations.

The embedded links are to correspondence unearthed in ongoing litigation, which the Times has posted on its site—and which, the paper reports, “the church fought to keep secret.” After you check them out, the ProPublica interview is well worth a read for anyone interested in this story—and in the broader question of how stories of this type come to light.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.