Moral Standing

Moral Standing

by digby

This morning page 10 of the New York Times featured three different stories of cover ups of child molestation by the Catholic hierarchy. There's the Vatican's terse "this is old news" non-denial denial about the Pope's personal knowledge of several cases, there's the ongoing horror story of the Legionnaries of Christ's leader, Father Maciel and his decades of abuse, and now this truly shocking story of a priest molesting deaf boys for decades in a school in Wisconsin. There's this story elsewhere in the paper about the Pope being far more concerned with the Church being "liberalized" than pedophile priests. During the period in which he blithely allowed a known molester to go back among children, he drew the line at this:

[I]n 1981, he punished a priest for holding a Mass at a peace demonstration, leading the man to ultimately leave the priesthood.

Stories of priest molestations have been around for a long time here in the US and are cropping up all over the world. The church has been covering up for pedophiles and child abusers for what appears to be forever. But one of the under discussed aspects of this story is the fact that the civilian authorities wouldn't do anything either. (Ireland is the worst case where the police were actually involved.) The case of the deaf students is particularly stark. Those kids reported that stuff for decades. They tried everything they could think of to stop it and nobody would listen:

Internal church correspondence unearthed in a lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and given to The New York Times, which made it public it this week, included a letter from the Rev. David Walsh, who served as a chaplain for the deaf in Chicago, saying that teenage students at St. John’s had told him in the late 1950s about Father Murphy’s abuse.

Father Walsh said he told Archbishop Albert Gregory Meyer of Milwaukee, who sent Father Murphy on a retreat and then put him back in the school to undo “the harm he had done.”

In the 1970s, a group of former students who were in a vocational rehabilitation program in Milwaukee began telling their hearing supervisors about Father Murphy, a sequence of events reported in two articles in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2006.

Among the supervisors was John Conway, now the deputy administrator of workers’ compensation for the State of Wisconsin. Mr. Conway, the students and others collected affidavits from 15 to 20 former students about Father Murphy’s violations. They were granted a meeting with Archbishop William E. Cousins.

“In my extreme naïveté,” said Mr. Conway in an interview on Friday, “I told them the archbishop would take care of this.”

He said they were surprised to find the room packed with people, including several nuns and teachers from the school, two priests who said they were representing the apostolic delegate in Chicago, and Father Murphy himself.

Arthur Budzinski and Gary Smith, two more victims of Father Murphy, said in an interview last week that they remember seeing Archbishop Cousins yell, and Father Murphy staring at the floor. The deaf men and their advocates were told that Father Murphy, the school’s director and top fund-raiser, was too valuable to be let go, so he would be given only administrative duties.

They were outraged. They distributed “Wanted” posters with Father Murphy’s face outside the cathedral in Milwaukee. They went to the police departments in Milwaukee, where they were told it was not the correct jurisdiction, and in St. Francis, where the school was located, Mr. Conway said. They also went to the office of E. Michael McCann, the district attorney of Milwaukee County, and spoke with his assistant, William Gardner.

“A criminal priest was an oxymoron to them,” Mr. Conway said. “They said they’ll refer it to the archdiocese.”

The deference given to churches in our society rendered our civil justice system impotent, especially in communities where the church was powerful. There's something deeply disturbing about that.

This is an awful story. And it's getting bigger as it becomes clearer that the cover-up reached all the way to the top. I don't know what will happen within the Church, but I do know that civil society should no longer be held hostage to the moral instruction of people who cover up for child molesters. Once you've done something like that, you you have no credibility or standing to judge the behavior of others.

Update: To be clear, I should note that some churches like the UCC are given no deference at all. But I think the larger point still stands. When a church comes into conflict with the state on criminal matters, the church should not be granted special dispensation to adjudicate the matter in their own "court" simply because they are given a special place in our civic life.