Editor’s note: Fr. Brundage is a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee currently serving in the Archdiocese of Anchorage. This article is written with the consent of Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki and Anchorage Archbishop Roger L. Schwietz.

To provide the context to this article, I was the judicial vicar for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee from 1995-2003. During those years, I presided over four canonical criminal cases, one of which involved Fr. Lawrence Murphy. Two of the four men died during the process. God alone will judge them.

I will limit my comments in this article because of judicial oaths I have taken as a canon lawyer and as an ecclesiastical judge. Since my name and comments in this matter have been liberally and often inaccurately quoted in the New York Times and in more than 100 other newspapers and online periodicals, I feel a freedom to tell part of the story of Fr. Murphy’s trial from ground zero.

I am also writing this article out of a sense of duty to the truth as I have found that the reporting on this issue has been inaccurate and poor in terms of facts. The fact that I presided over this trial and have never been contacted by any news organization for comment speaks for itself.

My intent in the following paragraphs is to do the following:

  1. To tell the back story of what actually happened on the local level;
  2. To outline the sloppy and inaccurate reporting by the New York Times and other media outlets on the Fr. Murphy case;
  3. Assert that Pope Benedict has done more than any other pope or bishop in history to rid the church of the scourge of child sexual abuse and provide for those who have been injured;
  4. Set the record straight with regards to the efforts made by the church to heal the wounds caused by clergy sexual misconduct. The Catholic Church is probably the safest place for children at this point in history.

Before proceeding to the first point, it is important to point out the scourge that child sexual abuse has been not only for the church but for society as well. Few actions can distort a child’s life more than sexual abuse. It is a form of emotional and spiritual homicide. It starts a trajectory toward a skewed sense of sexuality, and when committed by a person in authority, a distrust of almost anyone, anywhere.

As a volunteer chaplain in the Alaska State prison system, I have found a corollary between those who have been incarcerated for child sexual abuse and the priests who have committed such grievous actions. They tend to be very smart and manipulative. They tend to be well liked and charming. They tend to have one aim in life and that is to satisfy their hunger.

Most are highly narcissistic and do not see the harm they have caused. The children they have abused are not people but objects. They rarely show remorse and, moreover, sometimes portray themselves as the victims. They are, in short, dangerous people and should never be trusted again. Most will recommit their crimes if given a chance.

On the first point, the back story that has not been reported as of yet.

In 1996, I was introduced to the story of Fr. Murphy, formerly the principal of St. John’s School for the Deaf. It had been common knowledge for decades that there had been a scandal at St. John’s involving Fr. Murphy and some deaf children. The details were sketchy, at best.

Courageous advocacy on behalf of the victims (and often their wives), led the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to revisit the matter in 1996. In internal discussions of the curia for the archdiocese, it became obvious that we needed to take strong and swift action with regard to the wrongs that had occurred several decades ago. With the consent of then-Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland, we began an investigation into the allegations of child sexual abuse, as well as the solicitation within the confessional by Fr. Murphy.

Putting aside the pressing canonical issues that needed to be resolved (most of this can be found online), we started a trial against Fr. Murphy. I was the presiding judge in this matter and informed Fr. Murphy that criminal charges were going to be levied against him with regard to child sexual abuse and solicitation in the confessional.

In my interactions with Fr. Murphy, I got the impression I was dealing with a man who simply “did not get it.” He was defensive and threatening.

Between 1996 and August 1998, I interviewed, with the help of a qualified interpreter, about a dozen victims of Fr. Murphy. These were gut-wrenching interviews. In one instance, the victim had become a perpetrator himself and had served time in prison for his crimes. I realized that this disorder is virulent and was easily transmitted to others. I heard stories of distorted lives, sexualities diminished or expunged. These were the darkest days of my own priesthood having been ordained less than 10 years at the time. Grace-filled spiritual direction has been a Godsend.

I also met with a community board of deaf Catholics. They insisted that Fr. Murphy should be removed from the priesthood and highly important to them was their request that he be buried not as a priest, but as a layperson. I indicated that as a judge, I could not guarantee the first request and could only make a recommendation to the latter request.

In the summer of 1998, I ordered Fr. Murphy to be present at a deposition at the chancery in Milwaukee. Soon after, I received a letter from his doctor that the priest was in frail health and could travel not more than 20 miles (Boulder Junction to Milwaukee would be about 276 miles). A week later, Fr. Murphy died of natural causes in a location about 100 miles from his home.

With regard to the inaccurate reporting on behalf of the New York Times, the Associated Press, and those that utilized these resources, first of all, I was never contacted by any of these news agencies, yet they felt free to quote me. Almost all of my quotes are from a document that can be found online with the correspondence between the Holy See and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. In an Oct. 31, 1997 handwritten document, I am quoted as saying “odds are that this situation may very well be the most horrendous, number wise, and especially because these are physically challenged, vulnerable people. “Also quoted is this: “Children were approached within the confessional where the question of circumcision began the solicitation.”

The problem with these statements attributed to me is that they were handwritten. The documents were not written by me and do not resemble my handwriting. The syntax is similar to what I might have said, but I have no idea who wrote these statements, yet I am credited as stating them.

During my freshman year at the Marquette University School of Journalism, we were told to check, recheck and triple check our quotes if necessary. I was never contacted by anyone on this document, written by a source unknown to me. Discerning truth takes time and it is apparent that the New York Times, the Associated Press and others did not take the time to get the facts correct.

Second, in the documentation in a letter from Archbishop Weakland to Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone on Aug. 19, 1998, Archbishop Weakland stated that he had instructed me to end the proceedings against Fr. Murphy. Fr. Murphy died two days later. The fact is, on the day that Fr. 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 to Pope John Paul II if necessary. That process would have taken months, if not longer.

With regard to the role of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) in this matter, I have no reason to believe that he was involved. Placing this matter at his doorstep is a huge leap of logic and information.

Third, the competency to hear cases of sexual abuse of minors shifted from the Roman Rota to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by Cardinal Ratzinger, in 2001. Until that time, most appeal cases went to the Rota and it was our experience that cases could languish for years in this court. When the competency was changed to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in my observation as well as that of many of my canonical colleagues, sexual abuse cases were handled expeditiously, fairly, and with due regard to the rights of all the parties involved. I have no doubt that this was the work of then-Cardinal Ratzinger.

Fourth, Pope Benedict has repeatedly apologized, in various venues and to a world-wide audience, for the shame of the sexual abuse of children. This has never happened before. He has met with victims. He has reigned in entire conferences of bishops on this matter with the Catholic bishops of Ireland being the most recent. He has been the most reactive and proactive of any international church official in history with regard to the scourge of clergy sexual abuse of minors. Instead of blaming him for inaction on these matters, he should be seen as a truly strong and effective leader on these issues.

Finally, over the last 25 years, vigorous action has taken place within the church to avoid harm to children. Potential seminarians receive extensive sexual-psychological evaluation prior to admission. Virtually all seminaries concentrate their efforts on the safe environment for children. There have been very few cases of recent sexual abuse of children by clergy during the last decade or more. To get down to the basics, virtually every public bathroom in the churches of the Archdiocese of Anchorage has signs that ask if a person has been abused by anyone in the church, a phone number is given to report the abuse. Almost all church workers in the archdiocese are required to take yearly formation sessions in safe environment classes. I am not sure what more that we can do. In the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, a safe environment program has been in place since 2003.

The events during the 1960s and 1970s of the sexual abuse of minors and solicitation in the confessional by Fr. Lawrence Murphy are unmitigated and gruesome crimes. On behalf of the church, I am deeply sorry and ashamed for the wrongs that have been done by my brother priests but realize this is probably of little importance 40 years after the fact. The only thing that we can do at this time is to learn the truth, beg for forgiveness, and do whatever is humanly possible to heal the wounds. The rest, I am grateful, is in God’s hands.