ST. FRANCIS — The federal lawsuit filed last week accusing Pope Benedict XVI of covering up sexual abuse of a Milwaukee priest “rips up all the old wounds” of sexual abuse that may have been starting to heal, according to Jerry Topczewski, Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki’s chief of staff.
But it also serves as a reminder of the church’s priorities in overcoming the sexual abuse crisis, said Topczewski, expressing concern that “sound bite or headline” coverage of the lawsuit has erroneously implied the Vatican could have done something to protect children and instead looked the other way.
“You take a lawsuit like this and you wonder how is this helpful because it seems to not be grounded in any merit,” said Topczewski in an April 26 interview with your Catholic Herald. “It wouldn’t have prevented any abuse – no one is alleging that the Vatican could have stopped any abuse, they might be inferring that – but the fact is, in the (Fr. Lawrence) Murphy case, it wouldn’t have. There was no known abuse that was committed after 1977-78. When you think of all the energy and time that is spent focused on something that doesn’t seem to be as helpful as if energy and time were focused on issues facing victim survivors. Our focus is to bring some healing as best we can.”
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The lawsuit was filed April 22 in the U.S. District Court in Milwaukee by an unnamed Illinois man who claims he was molested by Fr. Lawrence Murphy while he was a student at St. John School for the Deaf. The plaintiff is represented by Minnesota attorney Jeff Anderson.
Topczewski expressed concern that the timeframe of events surrounding Fr. Murphy is being blurred by current media reports where history is judged “in the viewfinder of today.”
Calling the abuse by Fr. Murphy a multi-decade event, Topczewski noted, “By the time the Vatican found out about Lawrence Murphy in any official notification there was nothing they could do to prevent any abuse. The last abuse that we know of committed by Murphy was in 1977-78 and this is years after that, so it’s always been a challenge of putting things in a context of time,” he said.
Notification to the police and district attorney and the meeting with Archbishop William E. Cousins occurred in the 1970s, noted Topczewski, but it wasn’t until 20 years later, that any information was passed along to the Vatican.
Topczewski also noted that in the two decades between, steps were taken along the way to limit Fr. Murphy’s ministry, “some which he refused to follow” and others – documented on the archdiocesan Web site (www.archmil.org) – where, after no further allegations against Fr. Murphy surfaced, that he was allowed to minister.
“Unfortunately, there is nothing the Vatican could have done to prevent any abuse at that moment in time; maybe there could be the argument that maybe he could have been punished further, but it certainly wouldn’t have prevented the abuse,” said Topczewski, explaining that when the Vatican received the information on Fr. Murphy, he was “dying and wasn’t in any position to have access to kids.” The priest died in 1998.
With the current lawsuit, Topczewski said blame is erroneously being directed at Rome. “I think the inference is always that no one did anything to stop (Fr. Murphy) but that blame as the archbishop (Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki) said on Tuesday of Holy Week, that blame shouldn’t be directed at Rome; that blame should be directed right here, and a lot of different people, including the church, including the police department and other civic officials, a lot of people can share the blame on whether abuse can be prevented,” he said.
Also lost amid the filing of the lawsuit, said Topczewski, is concern for the true victims.
“I think what we have to remember as Catholics is that the abuse that has been suffered by victim survivors is serious, and it’s real and it’s with them today and it’s with us in the church today and we can never, ever diminish that in any way; we can never forget,” he said. “When you have a lawsuit like this, a lawsuit that seems to be more frivolous because of what it’s alleging – I mean it wouldn’t have stopped abuse – it tends to diminish the real abuse that victim survivors have suffered. It’s almost a distraction from the real issue at hand,” which he described as reaching out to those who have been harmed to work toward resolution and healing.
Topczewski noted that not all of Fr. Murphy’s victims have opted to sue the church. Some have chosen to use the church’s mediation system which he described as a wholistic approach which offers financial, pastoral and spiritual healing for victim survivors of clergy abuse.
While Topczewski said that he hears from some Catholics who wish this whole issue of sexual abuse would go away, he stressed that the church is not the victim.
“I don’t think it benefits anyone for the church to feel sorry for itself,” he said. “(While) the church, although, is hurting, is never as hurt as those who are victims.”
He admitted that a wave of bad news might seem to negate the good news and the progress that has been made on this issue, “every baby step you make forward in healing, and in resolution with victim survivors, healing as a general Body of Christ, all of a sudden the wound is reopened and I think at this time of the year, at least for me, I am reminded always by the resurrection appearances, that it’s the wounded Christ that appears. I guess we’re a wounded church; that’s a good reminder sometimes to have that in front of us. We have to continue to work toward that healing, but it’s never going to be complete because our history will always be brought with us.”
In light of the spotlight shining on the issue of clergy abuse with the filing of the lawsuit against the Vatican, Topczewski said it’s a good time to remind Catholics of the current priorities of the church in this area.
1. Perpetrators are held accountable.
No priest with a substantiated allegation of child sexual abuse can serve in ministry publicly in any capacity in the archdiocese – diocesan and religious order priests.
2. Outreach and care for victim survivors, dating back to Project Benjamin, and more recently the archdiocesan office for Sexual Abuse Prevention and Response Services.
3. Keeping children safe through the Safe Environment program, with complete criminal background checks, employee training, and community awareness.
Topczewski added that Archbishop Listecki has made the same promise as his predecessor, Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, that he is willing to meet personally with any victim survivor who wishes to meet as part of the healing process.
“He is not going to be one who looks with anything but a demanding voice that says we need to be accountable to the promises we made in the Charter,” he said, adding, “we will continue to see a continuation of the policies and protocols and procedures continuing to progress under Archbishop Listecki.”