Father Thomas Brundage corrects media accounts of the Milwaukee priest scandal
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HH: One of the reasons I admire Pope Benedict so much is because he has been so aggressive in the resolution and going after the perpetrators of sexual violence against children. He’s had quite a good record on that. But in recent weeks, he’s come under heavy fire on a number of fronts having to do with the Catholic Church scandal. And just this afternoon, according to an AP story that ran, oh, 20 minutes ago, a U.S. lawyer has filed a motion to have Pope Benedict questioned over the child sex scandal. In the course of this AP story, it is repeated that the New York Times published several letters and documents which indicated that when Benedict was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Benedict was informed of the case of the serial pedophile priest called Father Lawrence Murphy, who was accused of molesting up to 200 boys at a school for the deaf in Wisconsin. Since the Times story broke, several other clergy sex abuse victims and their lawyers have come forward and claimed that when the Pope was in charge of the CDF, he was informed about predator priests. Well, it just so happens that I had already booked for the program today Father Thomas Brundage, JCL, who’s attached to the Diocese of Anchorage, and who was in the late 90s the judicial vicar for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, in charge of the case of Lawrence Murphy, the serial pedophile, who died in the course of that. And he joins me tonight from Anchorage. Father Brundage, welcome, it’s good to have you on the program.
TB: Thank you, Hugh. Good day to you, too, and Happy Holy Week.
HH: And to you. And thank you for writing this piece in the Catholic Anchor, which is the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Alaska. You are at the center of this Milwaukee allegation about the Pope. Tell our audience your perspective of what’s going on here.
TB: Okay. My perspective is, you know, I was not aware of a lot of the publicity of this case until last week, Thursday. And I went to various web pages, and was astounded to see the case file from a criminal Church trial against Father Lawrence Murphy that lasted approximately 18 months from 1996 to 1998. There were two charges leveled against him. One was sexual abuse of minors. I’ve been hearing this figure of 200 victims. And prior to last week, I’ve never heard that before. We were estimating at least a hundred, and that’s horrible by itself. But I’ve even heard 250, and you know, this thing seems to be getting a life of its own. We started prosecuting the case in 1996. I was the judge serving and presiding over the case. We ran into some immediate problems, legally, and that means canonically, and the first problem was there were three different set of laws that were in effect that affected the way that we did the case. So we had to mesh together all these different laws, which meant that we had to communicate with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and they were very helpful in helping us to get through this. Our first major problem was according to one of the laws, the statute of limitations at that time for solicitation in the confessional was thirty days. Well, the obvious problem is these events were 25 years old. And so we wrote to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and they waived it. And I had never heard of a statute of limitations being waived before. So we proceeded with the trial. I interviewed about a dozen witnesses, courageous people willing to come forward, and often times with their wives with them, just heard gut-wrenching and horrible things about what Father Murphy did to them. And as I mentioned in the article, it was a very dark time in my life, having been ordained less than ten years, just to hear case after case of this. And we were, we were bound and determined to seek justice for the members of the deaf community who were affected by this. Eventually, I tried to depose Father Murphy myself, and about a week later, he died. And one of the things that has been misquoted in various newspapers and other media outlets, is the fact that the Vatican told us to stop this case. What they’re working off of is a document from Archbishop Bertone to Archbishop Weakland a couple of months prior to Father Murphy’s death, encouraging that we find another remedy other than a legal remedy. And I word I’m stressing is encourage. They didn’t order us to do that. And in fact, you know, when somebody encourages you, you can or cannot do that. And we continued on with the case. It appears as though Archbishop Weakland may have changed his mind, because two days prior to Murphy’s death, he did send a letter indicating that he was willing to stop the case. However, I was never informed of that, and only two people could have stopped the case. One was myself, and the other was Archbishop Weakland. So the news wasn’t out there until a couple of days ago that de facto, on the day that Father Murphy breathed his last, he was still under an indictment within the Church courts.
HH: Now this has garnered so much publicity, because of the connection to Benedict, Father Brundage…
TB: Tell me about it.
HH: Yeah, have you been contacted prior to today by any of the media organizations covering this?
TB: Well, over the last 36 hours, I have been. But prior to that, no. And what was astounding to me, to see my name quoted in the online version of the New York Times, as well as the Associated Press, I was just astounded that I was being quoted from a document that I eventually found at the website of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that was part of the case, and it wasn’t my handwriting. My handwriting is perfectly lousy. I can’t even read my own writing sometimes. And I’ve eventually been able to trace it. It’s the handwriting of Bishop Cliff (sp?), and he apparently was taking notes during a phone conversation that we were having. And I just think, you know, I studied journalism. At one time in my life, I was the editor of a newspaper. And there’s just some very basic journalistic principals that were broken in this matter, and one of which is you check facts, and you check quotes. And you have to make sure they’re accurate. And you know, I live in Alaska now. People aren’t aware that we’re one of the states of the United States. You don’t need a passport to get here. We have phones, telephones, faxes. I always answer my calls. No, there was no contact at all, and I just thought that that was…
HH: That is pretty remarkable, especially when the allegations are being leveled against the Pope, and especially when they’re dealing with the human victims of whom there are many…
TB: That’s right.
HH: And you know who they are. And I just view it as important, when there are victims like this, to make sure everything is reported accurately. Now I know from your article that you have a great concern for these victims. Did the Archdiocese of Milwaukee fairly treat them? I’m unfamiliar with…some diocese have not, some diocese have.
HH: Did Milwaukee treat them fairly in recent years?
TB: In recent years, we tried our very best, and we’re talking about the mid-90s to the present. We have tried our very best to help them as best we can in term of offering counseling, et cetera. Archbishop Listecki, who is the current archbishop of Milwaukee, read a statement last night, in which he laid it out very clearly. The Church in Milwaukee had made huge mistakes with regards to this case from the 1950s to the 1990s. And he asserted that Rome really didn’t make any mistakes, and he was accepting responsibility on behalf of the Church for the mistakes.
HH: Now as the judicial vicar in this case, what role do you know, and not guess, but do you know that Pope Benedict had as the leader of that Congregation?
TB: I guess the one thing is people are trying to make a connection between this case and then-Cardinal Ratzinger. And nobody has shown me a direct line. To assume that Benedict even read the letters, or was even aware of the case, is somewhat like myself, Thomas Brundage, as an American citizen, writing to a cabinet member of the president, and expecting, for instance, the secretary of state to read my letter and respond to it. You know, letters were sent to the head of that department, because that’s the protocol. But almost always, they’re handed on to other officials to handle. I never once saw any indication that now-Pope Benedict had any involvement in this case. And in fact, I met him in 2001 as a Cardinal, and he, had I been concerned about it, I would have talked to him about it.
HH: Now you did, however, deal with senior officials in the Vatican about the case.
TB: Did…that I had said I dealt with senior officials?
HH: Well, it says here, oh, I guess it’s Archbishop Weakland had dealt with senior officials like…
TB: Yes, he did. He did. He was over there for a meeting anyways, and he met with three officials of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. And I had some contact with the Church’s Supreme Court, the Signatura. And all this was in the context that we were really trying hard to do just and to do right with regards to these victims.
HH: And so…and so, you would have, I guess I’m asking, if the Pope had been involved in this, would you have known of that?
TB: I’m almost certain I would have, because even in 1997-98, Cardinal Ratzinger was a huge figure. And you know, had he had any involvement in this matter, I don’t see how they could have kept it away from me. I mean, I met with officials in Rome, I met with officials in Washington. In addition to his job at the Congregation, he wore a number of other hats, and it would be unbelievable to me that he would have had any involvement in this case.
HH: Father Brundage, if I can hold you over for one more second from Alaska, I know you’re busy, but if I can, I’ve just a couple more questions, but I’ve got to go to the break right now.
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HH: Father Brundage, I want to go back to some of the criticisms leveled at Pope Benedict. I’ve established that you don’t believe, you had no knowledge of him being involved in this case.
TB: Right. Correct.
HH: But he was…
TB: And I think it’s a huge leap of logic, and just to be very blunt about it, I think it’s absurd.
HH: Now that’s what some people will not understand, because they have in mind, well, this is a very serious case, molesting a hundred or more boys, and the archdiocese is moving very slowly. Ought he not to have been involved in it, is what they will say? Either he was, and he was negligent in its prosecution, or he wasn’t, and he ought to have been.
TB: Yeah, I’m not privy to the inner workings of, you know, the Congregation over in Rome, especially one that deals with matters like this. But let me put this in perspective for you. The Catholic Church is a community of 1.2 billion people. Anything that goes horrendously wrong goes to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Can you see how, you know, something like this, we can’t tell whether or not he had any involvement, and I’ve yet to see anybody draw a direct line, and I just personally feel that given Cardinal Ratzinger’s prestige, given his intelligence, his sensitivity, it would be badly out of character, and it just would not be the same person that we’ve known.
HH: Now you also wrote in your article that “the competency to hear cases of sexual abuse of minors shifted from the Roman Rota to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2001.”
HH: Now this priest was dead by then, and thus, the case closed by then.
HH: But what does that mean?
TB: It’s, the reason why the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith got involved in this case was because they were competent, they were the only competent body over issues of solicitation in the confessional. So that’s why they were brought into this case.
TB: But in 1998, it was actually the Roman Rota that would have been the court of appeal, had Father Murphy lived.
HH: So it was very unusual for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith to be involved in such a manner in any event prior to 2001?
TB: Yeah, it was unusual. I mean, they took, in my point of view, they took extraordinary measure to help us to do this case.
HH: And what did the, I don’t know the answer to this, and I don’t know if you know the answer, what did the Diocese of Milwaukee do vis-à-vis the criminal authorities of the United States, vis-à-vis this priest?
TB: You know, I’m only 47 years of age, and when these things were going on in the 60s and 70s, I was a kid myself. And so I have no knowledge, really, of what happened during that period of time. I will say that when we started the investigation of the case, the first thing logically that I did was try to look through our files, and to say the least, they were very sketchy. And so we were kind of building, in the mid-1990s, we were kind of building somewhat from scratch, trying to figure out exactly what happened. But I had no real knowledge of this case until early in 1996, so it’s hard for me to speak about what happened prior to that time. I’ll repeat, though, what Archbishop Listecki said last night, is the Archdiocese of Milwaukee made big mistakes from the 1950s to the early 1990s with regards to this case.
HH: Now speaking generally, as someone who’s had personal experience in the prosecution of one of the predators, and as someone who is also obviously well-versed in canonical law, how has Benedict’s record been, both as Pope and as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, generally, on the child abuse cases?
TB: He has done more than any other major religious figure that I know of in history, and that’s either current history or past. He has had a worldwide audience, in which he has repeatedly talked about the shame that this has brought to the Church, and trying to get the filth out of the Church. What I know is since 2001, when a case has been sent to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, they have swiftly, and I think fairly, removed an awful lot of these predators from the priesthood. And so there has been a purgation since he was at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that continues to this very day of the priests who preyed on kids.
HH: So when you see the New York Times, or today, columnist Maureen Dowd, or this new AP story, or the lawyer in Kentucky, targeting the Pope, what do you think they’re doing? Why do you think they’re doing it?
TB: I, my gut reaction to this is there has been outright, and sometimes latent anti-Catholicism. And I know it’s easy to play the anti card. I think there’s a part of this here that Benedict stands for an awful lot of things that the American society, and Western Europe, the European society, do not like. We support life. We have issues that are very, very different from the mindset of many Americans and Europeans as well. And I see this as a kind of blatant attack upon the Church.
HH: Well Father Brundage, I very much appreciate your article, and your taking the time to talk with me this afternoon. I may come back to you as this develops, but I hope the rest of the media finds it as easy as I did to find you, which was pretty doggone easy. And you were immediately responsive. So there really is no excuse for anyone who is covering this story not to talk to you. I gather you’re still answering your e-mail and answering your phone?
TB: I am. I’m about 300 e-mails behind right now, and it is Holy Week. I wish this were happening at some other time, but now is the time, and I’m just trying to do the best I can, and be as forthright and honest as I can.
HH: My last question…
TB: And my biggest concern are those victims.
HH: That’s what I was going to ask. What do the victims think of you? Do they think you did your job well?
TB: You know, I’ve been in Alaska four years, and have had no contact with most of them for the last four years. I think there’s a good relationship. I met with the community board. I did everything I could to prosecute the man. My only regret was he died before we were able to come to a conclusion in the case. And given the evidence that we had at the time, I’m sure that we probably would have dismissed him from the priesthood. And I wish that the deaf community would have had that satisfaction, because I think we might not be having this conversation today, had we been able to do that.
HH: Father Brundage, thank you, and thank you for taking time during Holy Week, and a happy and blessed Easter to you.
End of interview.