The case involved Fr Lawrence Murphy, who worked at a school for the deaf in Milwaukee from 1950 to 1974. In the early 1970s, multiple allegations of sexual abuse against the priest were made to civil authorities, who investigated but never brought charges. He was placed on a leave of absence for a while and later returned to pastoral ministry in the Diocese of Superior, where he worked until 1993.
The Times story said that according to documents it obtained from lawyers involved in a lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, then Archbishop Rembert Weakland in 1993 hired a social worker who interviewed Fr Murphy and reported that the priest had admitted his acts, had probably molested about 200 boys and felt no remorse. The archbishop placed restrictions on Fr Murphy's ministry.
Archbishop Weakland wrote to Cardinal Ratzinger about the case in 1996 because he thought it might involve "solicitation in the confessional", a sin which because of its gravity involved the doctrinal congregation.
Later in 1996, the doctrinal congregation told Wisconsin bishops to begin a canonical trial of Fr Murphy, the Times article said. But it said that process was halted after Fr Murphy wrote directly to Cardinal Ratzinger, saying that he had repented and was in poor health, and that the allegations went beyond the Church's own statute of limitations for such crimes.
When Archbishop Weakland met in 1998 with Cardinal Ratzinger's assistants at the doctrinal congregation official, he failed to persuade them to allow a trial that could lead to the defrocking of Fr Murphy.
Jesuit Fr Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said the Fr Murphy case was a "tragic" one that "involved particularly vulnerable victims who suffered terribly from
what he did".
Fr Lombardi pointed out, however, that the Vatican was only informed of the case more than two decades after the abuse had been reported to diocesan officials and the police. He noted that civil authorities had dropped their investigation without filing charges.
The Church's canonical procedures in such cases do not envision "automatic penalties", but recommend that a judgment be made, not excluding removal of a guilty priest from the priesthood, Fr Lombardi said.
"In light of the facts that Fr Murphy was elderly and in very poor health, and that he was living in seclusion and no allegations of abuse had been reported in over 20 years, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith suggested that the Archbishop of Milwaukee give consideration to addressing the situation by, for example, restricting Fr Murphy's public ministry and requiring that Fr Murphy accept full responsibility for the gravity of his acts," Fr Lombardi said.
"Fr Murphy died approximately four months later, without further incident," he added.
Since 2002, the Church has instituted a broad overhaul of how it handles these situations for the safety of all. However, it is not fair to criticize how a case was handled in 1998 while using current policies.
It needs to be understood too that not everything gets reported to the Vatican, not because of secrecy, but because that is the structure of the Church, that is, the bishops and cardinals have a sense of autonomy to govern their areas accordingly. Did I mention the Catholic Church has over a billion members?