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Mea Maxima Culpa: an exposé of an exposé

  • SEAN MURPHY

In the recent film, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, Oscar winning director Alex Gibney promises to show his audience "an exposé of abuse of power in the Catholic Church, and coverups that lead to the highest office of the Vatican." But the story told about "the Vatican" and Fr. Murphy in the documentary is turned on its head by the evidence they produce and the evidence they neglect.

Introduction

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In the recent film, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, Oscar winning director Alex Gibney promises to show his audience "an exposé of abuse of power in the Catholic Church, and coverups that lead to the highest office of the Vatican."  It is a powerful film that has evoked spasms of outrage from both critics and defenders of the Catholic Church, too often superficial "I told you so's" on the one hand, or "Just the usual bunch of Church bashers" on the other.  Neither attitude does justice to the film, which makes serious charges and thus demands serious engagement.

Since the story of Father Lawrence Murphy runs through Mea Maxima Culpa from the beginning to the end and forms, as it were, the backbone of the production, it is appropriate to follow that story and begin where the film begins:  in St. Francis, Wisconsin.

Father Lawrence Murphy was assigned to St. John School for the Deaf in St. Francis immediately after ordination in 1950, and left the school in September, 1974.  Decades later, people would learn that he had been removed because of complaints that he had been sexually abusing deaf boys at the school.  It was later estimated that he had sexually assaulted 100 to 200 boys during his tenure.

Mea Maxima Culpa is at its best in presenting Murphy's excruciating violation of the childhood innocence of his victims and its long-term impact on them.  However, most of the film deals with the victims' attempts to expose Murphy and bring him to justice, beginning in 1973 and 1974, with special emphasis on the response of the Catholic Church.

Consistent with the marketing description of the film, Mea Maxima Culpa attempts to convince the audience that "the Vatican" knew about Murphy's predatory activities for over twenty years and did nothing to stop him.  Even more, resurrecting the 2010 accusations of the New York Times, Alex Gibney claims that "the Vatican" refused to "defrock Murphy" even though American bishops were "pleading" to have him laicized.  One of the principal witnesses called by Mr. Gibney to give evidence against "the Vatican" is Rembert Weakland, former Archbishop of Milwaukee.

A review of publicly available documents fails to disclose evidence to support the accusations made by Mea Maxima Culpa with respect to the Murphy case.  On the contrary:  the words of New York Times reporter Laurie Goodstein rebound on her.  The story she and Mr. Gibney's tell about "the Vatican" and Fr. Murphy is turned on its head by the evidence they produce and the evidence they neglect.

The coverup of Murphy's crimes was the work of Milwaukee Archbishop William Cousins.  Weakland, his successor, continued to conceal them for some time and let him function as a priest until almost a year after his retirement with virtually no restrictions.  Weakland imposed some restrictions only after his own responsibility for concealing and protecting sex offenders became public in late 1993.  He took no further action until late 1995, after he had begun to feel more pressure from victims and their lawyers and, it seems, some of the Archdiocesan curia.  He did not begin a judicial process for laicization until the fall of 1996.

Murphy wrote to Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in January, 1998, asking him to intervene to stop the process because the canonical limitation of action period had long since expired, and because he was old and ill.  The reply from Archbishop Bertone, Secretary of Cardinal Ratzinger's Congregation, confirmed that there was no time limitation on prosecution.  Archbishop Bertone also directed the attention of the American bishops to a point in canon law, which they then addressed.  Thus, the reply from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith cleared the way for the laicization process to continue.

However, in May, 1998, during their ad limina visit to Rome, Archbishop Weakland and Bishop Sklba of Milwaukee and Bishop Fliss of Superior met with Archbishop Bertone and curial officials to ask advice about the Murphy case.  The advice given was based on Weakland's  anaemic presentation;  Archbishop Bertone pointed out some of the evidentiary difficulties in proceeding and suggested an alternative method of dealing with the problem, as it had been described by Weakland.  Cardinal Ratzinger was not involved in the case, and the American bishops were not directed to stop the judicial process.

Weakland himself decided to halt the process of laicization in late July.  Murphy died two days after Weakland committed his decision to writing on 19 August, 1998.  Since that time, Weakland has attempted to make it appear that "the Vatican" was responsible for hindering and then halting the laicization Murphy, and Mr. Gibney was either taken in by Weakland's dissembling or found that it served his purposes in making Mea Maxima Culpa.

This is not a critique of the film as a whole, but is confined to its misrepresentations of the Murphy story, which Mr. Gibney could have told with much greater effect had he paid attention to the evidence, and allowed the evidence to guide his film-making.  The evidence is presented here, in five parts.*


Part 1: 1950 to 1975

Fr. Lawrence Murphy is assigned to St. John School for the Deaf near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1950, becomes director in 1963, and is removed from the school in 1974 for sexually assaulting students.  Archbishop William Cousins conceals the reason for his removal and sends him 300 miles away to Boulder Junction, Wisconsin, in the Diocese of Superior.  During a civil suit in 1975, Cousins commits perjury to continue the coverup.  The lawsuit is settled out of court.  Go here.


Part 2: 1975 to 1993

Rembert Weakland succeeds Cousins as Archbishop of Milwaukee in 1977.  He learns of the allegations against Murphy and forbids him to say mass in Milwaukee in order to avoid friction with the deaf community.  He places no other restriction on him, and continues to conceal the reason for his departure from Milwaukee from the Bishop of Superior until at least 1980.  Murphy functions as a priest without restrictions for 16 years, until his retirement in January, 1993.  Go here.


Part 3: 1993

In November and December, 1992, revelations of clerical sexual abuse rock the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.  Fr. William Effinger is charged for sexual assault in January, 1993 and civil suits are filed against the Archdiocese.  Apparently emboldened by the news reports and public response to these developments, Murphy's victims begin to come forward.  Apparently as a result, in the early fall of 1993, restrictions are placed on Murphy's ministry in Milwaukee, and he is later forbidden to have unsupervised contact with minors.

In November, 1993, the Archdiocese settles nine civil suits filed by Effinger's victims.  News reports reveal Weakland knew of Effinger's offences and concealed them.  Immediately following the settlements, more restrictions on ministry are imposed on Murphy, in writing.  Weakland has him evaluated by a psychotherapist, who advises Weakland that he has admitted to sexually assaulting 19 students, though the likely number of suspects could be 200.  She also reports on his abuse of the confessional.  Weakland affirms restrictions on Murphy at the end of December, but takes no further action.  His failure to pursue laicization of Murphy is consistent with his public statements on the subject.  Go here.


Part 4: 1994 to 1998

One of Murphy's victims writes to Weakland in November, 1994, making allegations against Murphy.  In early 1995 he writes to Murphy to accuse him directly, and sends copies to Weakland and Angelo Cardinal Sodano.  Sodano ignores the letter, and a subsequent request for the courtesy of a reply, thus demonstrating callous disregard for the victim.  However, he is not obliged to take other action because he knows that Weakland had been provided with the same information, and that it is Weakland's responsibility to respond.

Lawyers representing Murphy's victims begin writing to Weakland in 1995.  In September, a victim reports historical sexual assault and the abuse of the confessional.  Weakland authorizes an investigation in December prior to a six month sabbatical.  On his return in July, 1996, after consulting with the investigators, he writes to Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger for direction.  He authorizes a judicial process for laicization to begin in December, 1996.

In January, 1998, Murphy writes to Cardinal Ratzinger to ask that the case against him be stopped because the canonical limitation of action had passed, and because he is old and ill.  The reply from the Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith clears the way for the proceedings to continue.  Go here.


Part 5: 1998- The End of the Road

During their ad limina visit to Rome at the end of May, Archbishop Weakland and Bishop Sklba of Milwaukee and Bishop Fliss of Superior meet with Archbishop Bertone from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  Weakland makes an anaemic presentation of the Murphy case.  Based what he has been told by Weakland, Bertone discusses some of the evidentiary problems associated with the proceeding and suggests a possible alternative way to deal with the case.  He gives no direction as to how the case should be resolved.

Weakland returns to Milwaukee.  On 22 July he decides to halt the laicization process and adopt a "pastoral" resolution.  In a letter to Archbishop Bertone dated 19 August he explains his decision.  Murphy dies two days later.

When confronted publicly about the handling of the Murphy file, Weakland blames "the Vatican."  However, he privately explains that his efforts in Rome and subsequent handling of the case were intended to preserve Murphy's good name and keep everything "as quiet as possible."  Go here.


*Author's Note

What is offered here is a response to specific accusations made in Mea Maxima Culpa concerning Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  It is not an exhaustive account of the Murphy story, though the story had to be told again in some detail to provide an adequate context for the response.

Missing records, or, at least, the limited number of publicly available records makes it difficult to reconstruct events.  The lawyers cooperating with Mr. Gibney in making Mea Maxima Culpa have not released all of the documents used in the film, notably the deposition of Archbishop William Cousins and the document signed by Gary Smith in 1975.

In preparing this review I consulted all documents I was able to find on-line relevant to the Murphy case.  When possible, I have tried to fill in details and chronological blanks from other sources, including contemporaneous newspaper articles drawn principally from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and its predecessor publications.

I have provided over 300 notes, most of which link to on-line sources, and, when attempting to reconcile conflicting or varying accounts or explain other points, I have tried to make my reasoning clear.  Readers who disagree, in whole or in part, should have no difficulty in articulating the extent and reasons for their disagreement.

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Acknowledgement

Sean Murphy. "Mea Maxima Culpa: an exposé of an exposé." CERC (March 23, 2013).

Reprinted with permission of the author, Sean Murphy.

The Author

Sean Murphy, a Catholic layman, is an associate member of the Canadian chapter of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. For ten years he served as a western director of the Catholic Civil Rights League (Canada). He retired from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 2008.

Copyright © 2013 Sean Murphy
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