NPR logo

Impact Of Milwaukee-Based Catholic Scandal Felt Globally

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Impact Of Milwaukee-Based Catholic Scandal Felt Globally

Impact Of Milwaukee-Based Catholic Scandal Felt Globally

Impact Of Milwaukee-Based Catholic Scandal Felt Globally

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

A decades-old sex abuse scandal at the St. John’s School for the Deaf outside Milwaukee, where 200 boys say they were molested is creating a scandal for the Vatican and threatening to ensnare Pope Benedict XVI. Guest host Allison Keyes speaks about the fallout with Michael Sean Winters of America, the national Catholic weekly, and Hjamil Martínez-Vázquez, assistant professor of Religion at Texas Christian University.


Now it's time for Faith Matters. It's the part of the program where we talk about issues of religion and spirituality. This week, the Catholic Church was rocked by yet another sexual abuse scandal. And this time Pope Benedict XVI is being accused of helping to cover up the sexual abuse of 200 boys in the U.S. This comes days after the pope gave an unprecedented apology to Catholics in Ireland, where he said that the Roman Catholic Church betrayed the trust of their parishioners.

Joining us now to talk about this story and how it could affect American Catholics is Michael Sean Winters. He writes a daily political blog for the largest circulation, Catholic Weekly magazine, America and he's a contributor to the National Catholic Reporter. Also joining us is Hjamil Martinez-Vazquez. He's an assistant professor of religion at Texas Christian University. And author of Latino/a y Musulman: The Construction of Latino/a Identity Among Latino/a Muslims in the United States.

Welcome, gentlemen, to the program.

Mr. MICHAEL SEAN WINTERS (Writer, Catholic Weekly, America, National Catholic Reporter): Good to be here.

Professor HJAMIL MARTINEZ-VAZQUEZ (Religion, Texas Christian University): Thank you for having me.

KEYES: Michael, first, can you explain how these latest accusations came to light? It's part of a lawsuit that's going on, right?

Mr. WINTERS: Well, there was a New York Times story yesterday that I have to say was an uncharacteristically bad piece of journalism, which seemed to confuse throughout the article the charges that were leveled against this priest relating to sex abuse. And the charges that actually went to then-cardinal acting right now Pope Benedict XVI.

The charges came from a 1996 letter that was written from Milwaukee. There was a priest, he abused - in the '60s and '70s, he abused 200 deaf children. That was dealt with in 1974 in Milwaukee, whether it was dealt with well or poorly is a separate issue. What was before Cardinal Ratzinger was the issue of, did this priest absolve in the confessional someone with whom he had been sexually complicit? And that is something that would go to Pope Benedict. Sex abuse cases only went to Cardinal Ratzinger's congregation in 2001. And I think that may have been the confusion at the heart of the piece.

KEYES: Okay. How has the Vatican to this latest...

Mr. WINTERS: Quite uncharacteristically. Yesterday for the first time in their daily bulletin, they put a direct response to the New York Times story on the Vatican Web site. And they made the point that I just made, which was that this had been dealt the sex abuse charges had been dealt with in Milwaukee. What was in front of the pope was something else. And that at that time, the 22 years after the initial charges, the priest in question was dying. And these canonical trials take three or four years.

And so Pope Benedict made the then Cardinal Ratzinger made the recommendation at that time that the priest's death was somewhat imminent. And, in fact, he died four months later, that not to pursue the trial because it just would not happen.

KEYES: Some might consider that as having gotten off scott-free.

Mr. WINTERS: Well, I think, you know, certainly the issue is and it's haunting throughout these documents about the sex abuse crisis, nowhere do you see evidence that maybe it's up to the victims to decide whether or not to pursue this trial and that they had a right to at least a good faith effort to try to bring this man to some kind of justice.

But, you know, there was also in that article a very telling line - and I'll quote it, it says, you know, Father Murphy, who was the pedophile, not only was never tried or disciplined by the church's own justice system, but also got a pass from the police and prosecutors who ignored reports from his victims. And you have to ask, you know, in this environment, are they just looking for a smoking gun to point at Cardinal Ratzinger? Do we know who those prosecutors were?

Is one of them, you know, an attorney general somewhere? I mean, that's not part of the story. The story is so focused on the church. And I have to say, I think there's a little bit of unfairness there.

KEYES: Professor, a lot of American Catholics are Latino. I wonder how they view these scandals and allegations.

Prof. MARTINEZ-VAZQUEZ: Well, for the most part, this is not good for the Catholic Church in general and for Catholics around the United States because it brings back the whole discussion that for a while was actually out of the news. So it brings it back to it. For Latino Catholics, specifically, it's troublesome because most Latino Catholics are in big cities. And most of these accusations in the past were also in big cities.

So it is an issue of that they have to deal with it again. They have to be defending against their friends who are Protestants now. And I think they feel that pressure, again, that they didn't felt that they were not feeling in the past couple of years, where the news actually of sexual abuse was actually dying down. So this brings it back again. Even though the trigger was in Ireland, but with this new as the other reporter says, with the new revelations with a quotation mark, this brings back this feeling of being unsecure and knowing, oh, this is the church I want to go. So it is an issue that is troublesome for many Catholics.

KEYES: Are any of the alleged victims of abuse Latino?

Prof. MARTINEZ-VAZQUEZ: Oh yeah, and they have been documented in places like Massachusetts and Chicago. So, yeah, they have been not that the large majority because of the dates where this was going on, that has been reported, but, yes, it has affected Latino communities.

KEYES: Michael, I wonder if has Catholicism been on the decline in the U.S.? And is and are these allegations and scandals partly to blame?

Mr. WINTERS: Actually, it's still one of the few congregations that continues to grow. I think a lot of it has to do with immigration. But you and these are damning allegations. Of course they hurt the church and most especially because it's self-inflicted. You know, there's I was thinking this morning, you know, Richard Nixon kept an enemy's list. And it turns out none of his enemies did as much damage to that man as his staff.

And it's very similar in the church. These people were trying to keep this hush-hush and cover it up because they didn't want to damage the reputation of the church. As the pope said in his letter to Ireland, this was a misguided attempt to protect the reputation of the church. And it was misguided and it's come back to haunt us horribly.

You know, the credibility of the church is at issue here. But I do think we have done more, certainly, since in this country in 2002 when it first really blew up, to ensure the children are safe, to take measures that all employees of the church, whether they work in schools, whether they work in afterschool programs receive specific training.

You're not going to see more of these events going forth in the Catholic Church and I believe other churches are looking to what the Catholic Church has done, and other countries are looking to what the Catholic Church in the United States has done as a model of how to really, you know, exorcise this cancer from the church.

KEYES: Professor, you said that this was making it uncomfortable for the Latinos in the church, are many of them leaving it?

Prof. MARTINEZ-VAZQUEZ: Well, not necessarily leaving it, but for the past 15 years, there had been a large number of Latinos and Latinas leaving the Catholic Church or Protestant churches or Pentecostal churches, or to other religions like Islam. But in the past five years, you have been getting a lot of the Latino population not a lot, but some of the Latino population who are leaving those churches and going back to the Catholic church.

So, all of a sudden, you have this going on and so the movements going back to the Catholic Church, I don't think is going to go as well, because this is, again, part of the aura of the Catholic Church. So a lot of people are going to be looking out, specifically, understanding some more conservative, fundamental, Protestant or Pentecostal churches, they are going to jump on this bandwagon fast and furious, because that's what they do.

They have demonized - and, again, this is not all of it - but some churches have demonized the Catholic Church because of sayings or whatever. So this is not just another reason to keep punching at it.

KEYES: Speaking of demonizing the Catholic Church, Michael, I know that the church has also been a large part of the political action in the Latino community. Are these allegations affecting that role?

Mr. WINTERS: No, I don't think so. You know, the Evangelical church, although less organized and having less of a corporate identity than the Catholic Church, has had its own sexual scandals. Reverend Haggard in Colorado Springs being the most famous, who had a gay prostitute and that all blew up, and I don't even know how it all played out. And I do think, you know, the professor's right that you have had people for a variety of reasons leaving the Catholic Church and looking to Evangelical churches, both in Latin America and in the Latin American community here in the United States.

But I was just in Puerto Rico and a priest there told me, you know, that even though the Evangelical churches have grown, some of their families, they still go to the priest to be baptized. That there is still they don't want to totally break those ties. And more importantly, I think certainly in Latin America, you still have a culture that was created out of the church, that was created in the church.

And so, whereas in America, it's a dominant Protestant culture that the Catholic Church came to fruition in and the dynamics are quite different south of the border.

KEYES: I wonder, Michael, in the couple of minutes we have left, how is the Vatican's response being taken by Catholics American Catholics?

Mr. WINTERS: Oh, you know, the Vatican moves very slowly. And unfortunately, with news cycles, this is something where they have to move much faster. I think the reception of the letter to the church in Ireland was largely favorable. I think the key there is that the pope, for the first time, really explicitly said this is not just about pedophiles, this is about the bishops who enabled them. Again, to use the Watergate analogy, you know, that started as a burglary, but he real scandal was the cover-up of the burglary. And this was the first time the Vatican really realizes they've got to start holding bishops accountable.

KEYES: Professor, I want to briefly ask you the same question, Latino Catholics, how are they responding?

Prof. MARTINEZ-VAZQUEZ: Oh, I think that the response is going to be different from older generations to newer generations. As Michael said, because of the cultural awareness and the cultural background of being Catholic in Latin America, it's part of the culture. But for newer generations and specifically newer immigrants or just being born here, this is going to be really affecting their in their faith, because in their schools they're going to be listening to all these other Protestant or Evangelical stuff.

KEYES: Professor, I've got to cut you off. We're up against the clock. I'm so sorry. Hjamil Martinez-Vazquez is assistant professor of religion at Texas Christian University and author of "Latino/a y Musulman: The Construction of Latino Identity Among Latino Muslims in the United States." He joined us by fine from Fort Worth, Texas.

And Michael Sean Winters writes a daily political blog for the largest circulation Catholic weekly magazine America, and is a contributor to the National Catholic Reporter. He joined us right here at our studios in Washington, D.C.

Thank you, gentlemen.

Mr. WINTERS: Thank you.

Prof. MARTINEZ-VAZQUEZ: Thank you so much.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.