Priest Who Oversaw Church Trial in Wisconsin Abuse Case Acknowledges Error

The New York Times
April 9, 2010

The Rev. Thomas T. Brundage, a Roman Catholic priest and an ecclesiastical judge who presided over the church trial in Milwaukee in the 1990s of a priest accused of abusing deaf boys, has acknowledged that he was ordered to stop the proceedings in 1998, after a request from the Vatican.

After an article in The New York Times last month on the case of the Rev. Lawrence Murphy, who molested as many as 200 deaf boys at a boarding school in Wisconsin in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, Father Brundage suggested in an essay for a Catholic newspaper that he had not been ordered to stop the trial. In his essay, Father Brundage wrote:

[I]n a letter from Archbishop Weakland to then-secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone on August 19, 1998, Archbishop Weakland stated that he had instructed me to abate the proceedings against Father Murphy. Father Murphy, however, died two days later and the fact is that on the day that Father Murphy died, he was still the defendant in a church criminal trial. No one seems to be aware of this. Had I been asked to abate this trial, I most certainly would have insisted that an appeal be made to the supreme court of the church, or Pope John Paul II if necessary.

Last week, however, The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported that a memo written by Father Brundage on Aug. 15, 1998, showed that he had advised Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland of Milwaukee how to word a letter officially abating the trial. The memo was posted on the Web site of the Milwaukee newspaper, along with other documents on the case.

The Times article was based on 86 pages of documents on the church trial of Father Murphy, which were posted online with the report. Those documents showed that in the two years before Father Murphy died, in 1998, bishops in Milwaukee and Superior, Wisc., sought permission from the Vatican to give Father Murphy a canonical process that could result in his removal from the priesthood. The documents showed that after a long delay, they received permission to proceed.

In an interview last week, Father Brundage said that he started the trial, interviewed about a dozen deaf victims and deposed Father Murphy.

The documents posted on the Web by The Times reveal that the Vatican instructed the Wisconsin bishops to halt the trial three months after Father Murphy wrote a letter appealing for mercy to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict XVI. Cardinal Ratzinger did not respond, but his deputy, Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone (now the Vatican’s secretary of state), wrote a letter advising the bishop of Superior that instead of a trial, the bishops should invoke “pastoral measures” like putting restrictions on Father Murphy’s ministry (restrictions that the Wisconsin bishops had already imposed without success).

The documents also showed that the Wisconsin bishops had misgivings about the trial being stopped at the behest of Vatican officials. These documents include letters, a log of notes kept by a bishop, and minutes in Italian of a meeting at the Vatican (both the poor translation the American bishops relied on in 1998 and fresh translations recently posted on the Internet).

In the meeting, Cardinal Bertone said that there was “insufficient information to conduct a canonical process” and proposed a “spiritual retreat” for Father Murphy.

It was in his essay responding to the report in The Times, and another article by The Associated Press, that Father Brundage, who now works in the Archdiocese of Anchorage, maintained that the trial had never been officially stopped. After his own memo about the move to stop the trial was revealed by The Journal-Sentinel, Father Brundage wrote in a correction on the Catholic newspaper’s Web site:

In all honesty, I do not remember this memo but I do admit to being wrong on this issue and I apologize for my mistake. Father Murphy’s death 2 days after Archbishop Weakland’s August 19, 1998 letter made the matter moot as de-facto death permanently abated the case. I again, am sorry for my mistake and for making a very complicated and painful case even more complicated and painful.

This subsequent correction apparently led the Catholic newspaper to remove two sentences from Father Brundage’s original essay on its Web site. The edited essay, however, still says that the trial was never officially stopped.

In a telephone interview with The Times on Thursday, Father Brundage said: “There’s a blank in the memory there. It was a painful period of time. I’ve apologized for the error, but I don’t think it goes to the heart” of the criticisms he’s been making of the news reports. Above all, he wants to say that Pope Benedict does not bear any responsibility for halting the trial.

He added that he did everything he could to bring Father Murphy to justice, and to honor the victims. “We did for the last 18 months of his life try him, and we did try him hard,” he said. As to why the trial was stopped, he said, “It’s a bit inexplicable to me.”

He added, “The only reason I can think of is a sense of clemency” — that Archbishop Bertone took mercy on Father Murphy because of his age and poor health.

In interviews with The Times and other newspapers Father Brundage has also continued to argue that while a decision was mad to “abate” the trail, it does not mean that it was stopped, in canonical terms. It means the trial was “frozen.”


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