Archbishop Rembert WeaklandFew of the recent stories have done more to raise a cloud of suspicion over Benedict than the claim by New York Times reporter Laurie Goodstein that he declined to defrock a Catholic priest in Milwaukee who had abused more than 200 boys in an institution for the deaf.

Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy worked at a renowned school for deaf children from 1950 to 1974. His case was handled by local Catholic authorities until 1996, when Rembert Weakland, who was the Archbishop of Milwaukee from 1977 to 2002, notified the Vatican. Murphy died in 1998, still a priest.

The opening paragraph in the damning story was:

Top Vatican officials — including the future Pope Benedict XVI — did not defrock a priest who molested as many as 200 deaf boys, even though several American bishops repeatedly warned them that failure to act on the matter could embarrass the church, according to church files newly unearthed as part of a lawsuit.

However, when a Canadian journalist-priest Fr. Raymond J. de Souza examined the article more closely and compared it to the supporting documents helpfully supplied by the New York Times, he found that the story was false. “The story is false. It is unsupported by its own documentation. Indeed, it gives every indication of being part of a coordinated campaign against Pope Benedict, rather than responsible journalism,” he wrote in the National Review (March 27).

In interpreting the paper trail, reporter Laurie Goodstein relied heavily on the interpretation given by Archbishop Weakland. What readers of the Times are unlikely to know, as de Souza points out, is that this man is “the most discredited and disgraced bishop in the United States”. It is public knowledge that he used US$450,000 of archdiocesan funds to silence a former homosexual lover who was blackmailing him. Ironically – for someone accusing the Vatican of ignoring letters – Archbishop Weakland routinely shredded  copies of weekly reports about sexual abuse by priests according to documents presented in 2009 by the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests as part of a lawsuit.

The story is complicated, but the upshot is that Cardinal Ratzinger took no decisions in the case and the Murphy was on track to being defrocked but died before this happened. “The New York Times flatly got the story wrong, according to its own evidence. Readers may want to speculate on why,” de Souza concludes. If you are curious, examine the paper trail for yourself.