Church abuse law suit filed in Wisconsin

A lawsuit, filed last week on behalf of a Milwaukee victim of a string of sexual abuses by the deceased Rev. Lawrence Murphy, is naming Pope Benedict XVI and other Vatican officials as defendants, bringing the Murphy scandal into international news once again.

An alleged Murphy victim who was accused of molesting as many as 200 deaf boys at a school in St. Francis, Wis., from 1950 to 1974 — claims the Vatican, as the supreme authority of the church, is responsible for the actions of bishops who failed to remove Murphy, dating back as far as the 1950s.

The suit was filed in federal court in the Eastern District of Wisconsin last week.

The pope, formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, is being named as a defendant because of a letter his office received in July 1996 from then-Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland, who sought orders on how to proceed in the hearing on Murphy.

Follow-up letters reveal that Ratzinger and the Vatican did not respond to the letter until March 24, 1997.

At the time, Murphy was on trial in Superior, Wis., for soliciting sex in a confessional from a student in the 1960s. Murphy, who was in poor health, died while the trial was in its beginning stages.

The victim, named in the suit as “John Doe 16,” is being represented by Jeff Anderson, a Minnesota attorney whose firm has worked for over 2,000 victims in clergy sex abuse cases. Anderson is bringing this battle to the top of the church, calling on the Vatican to release its files on all abuse cases.

Jeff Lena, a California-based Vatican attorney, said in a statement last Thursday that the lawsuit was a publicity stunt.

“The case against the Holy See and its officials is completely without merit,” Lena said in a statement. “Most of the complaint rehashes old theories already rejected by U.S. courts.”

Lena also said the Vatican didn’t know about Murphy’s crimes until decades after the abuse occurred, and had no role “in causing the plaintiff’s injuries.”

The suit was filed just days after the pope had a tearful meeting with a group of victims who had been sexually abused by clergy in Malta. A Vatican statement said Benedict expressed shame and sorrow over what had happened.

“(The Pope) prayed with them and assured them that the Church is doing, and will continue to do, all in its power to investigate allegations, to bring to justice those responsible for abuse and to implement effective measures designed to safeguard young people in the future,” the statement read.

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee would not comment on the lawsuit, though Archbishop Jerome Listecki has previously addressed the issue of decades-old cases being introduced to the justice system.

“I have a problem when you try to retroactively go after situations that have long past,” Listecki told the Tribune during a January interview, speaking about a proposed bill that would have made it easier for victims of childhood sexual assault to sue their abusers, including lengthening the statute of limitations for future cases. “Prospectively, going forward is fine, but retroactively kind of violates due process of the constitution.”

Listecki has also said it is unfair for the church as a whole to be sued because public institutions, such as public schools, are protected by sovereign immunity. Private or non-profit institutions like the archdiocese can be subject to suits as a whole establishment.

Listecki has been a strong defender of the pope, saying after the annual Chrism Mass on March 30, “The Holy Father has been firm in his commitment to combat clergy sexual abuse, root it out of the church, reach out to those who have been harmed and hold perpetrators accountable.”