Unforgivable Sins: Systematic Child Abuse Within the Catholic Church

Father Lawrence Murphy was a beloved priest. A charming, charismatic individual, his prowess as a fundraiser for St John’s school for the deaf in Wisconsin, at which he worked, was unmatched. As an individual who could hear, but was also fluent in sign language, Murphy was cherished by children and adults alike. Father Lawrence Murphy was also a predatory paedophile.

In the 24 years he spent at St John’s, Murphy is thought to have molested over 200 children. His victims were not random; Murphy would deliberately select children that he knew had parents who could not converse using sign language. Thus the children abused by Murphy could not tell their parents even if they wanted to, though it was unlikely that they would have anyway. Somehow, Murphy’s actions have exceeded what many of us would have thought were the limits of cruelty. To molest children is heinous, but to abuse deaf children who could not communicate their suffering with their parents had they wanted to, this seems to surpass the limits of depravity generally thought possible.

Priests were put on a pedestal and seemed beyond wrongdoings. Moreover, an attack on a priest was seen as an attack on the Church as a whole – something absolutely unthinkable and unacceptable for the parents and for the children. Whilst some of his victims understood the abhorrence of Murphy’s actions at the time, others felt special having been selected to spend more time with the keeper of the Sacraments, and besides, priests are holy men and can do no wrong.

Individuals victimised by Murphy filed numerous complaints with both the District Attorney and Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Nothing was done in either case. Documents show that there had been many complaints made to the Archdiocese who chose to ignore them. What’s more, documentary evidence shows categorically that the Vatican knew about Murphy’s crimes and did nothing. When public opinion in Milwaukee turned against Murphy, he was moved to a small Church in Boulder Junction, Wisconsin, though it was claimed this was due to health reasons. Despite Murphy having confessed his abuses to therapists provided by the Church, The Bishop of the Diocese in which Boulder Junction is located was not informed of Murphy’s crimes, nor was the public made aware. He lived in Boulder Junction until his death in 1998 having never answered for his crimes.

This is just one horrific example, but it is by no means unique. It shares the characteristics of every other incident and captures the disgraceful handling of child abuse within the Church as a whole. As much as the Church has tried to make incidents like this seem isolated and has even tried portray it as an Anglo-American issue, they have failed on both fronts. There are hundreds of cases of priests and bishops and cardinals participating in, and/or covering up, incidents of child rape and molestation that we know of (there are almost certainly more that remain unknown), and this problem is global. The Vatican was not unaware of this pandemic within the Church. Joseph Ratzinger, prior to becoming the Pope, ran the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and in 2001 he issued a directive demanding that all reports of child abuse by Church figures should come to his desk. Child abuse within the Roman Catholic Church is systematic and the Vatican has never sought to address it.

It appears that the Vatican still has no intention of tackling child abuse committed by the clergy, as evidenced by the fact that last week a document released by the Vatican revealed that new bishops are told that it is “not necessarily” their duty to report claims of child abuse by fellow members of the clergy. As has always been the way, the Church states that such issues should be dealt with internally. Though, what the Church considers ‘dealing with’ such matters seems to differ from what any normal person would consider ‘dealing with’ this issue; just consider the Murphy case, and the fact that Cardinal Bernard Law, who oversaw a mass cover-up of sex abuses carried out by paedophilic priests until his resignation as Archbishop of Boston in 2002, was given the position of archpriest of the Basilica of the Santa Maria Maggiore –the largest Church in Rome and one of the most prestigious churches in Catholicism – by Pope John Paul II himself.

This document is an affront to the victims and common decency that demonstrates not merely a lack of compassion, or a sheer abundance of callousness on the part of the Church, but genuine contempt for the victims of the most abhorrent crimes because of the threat they pose to the Church’s image. The realisation that the Church still deems it necessary to impose a code of silence upon those who might know of priests continuing to rape and abuse vulnerable children can only suggest one thing: that it is still a problem rife within the Catholic Church and that the Vatican knows this. Admittedly, this can hardly be considered some sort of revelation – it is exactly what you can expect if you give sexually repressed men power over young, vulnerable, impressionable children who are taught never to question the clergy and into which the priests can quite literally instil the fear of God.

The signals emanating from the Church this week further suggest that they are receding back behind closed doors and resorting to old ways now that Peter Saunders, an outspoken member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors set up by Pope Francis two years ago and a survivor of child abuse committed over five years by two priests, has been sacked from the commission.

If the Catholic Church is ever again to be considered a serious moral institution, let alone a prescriber of morality, then it must clean up its own affairs before it tells us to clear up ours. Child rape is the most sickening of all crimes. Yet the Roman Catholic Church has, and continues to, unapologetically do nothing about it.

Liam Kerrigan

Image courtesy of Reuters 

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