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Marci A. Hamilton

Children in Peril: From Haiti's Dubious Adoptions, to the Vatican's Continuing Cover-up


Thursday, February 4, 2010

The plight of children in Haiti has drawn headlines recently – rightly so, for Haiti's children, like all children, deserve our avid concern. But it is important that we also keep in mind the continuing fight to get justice for children who have been mistreated and abused here in the United States.

Thus, in this column, I'll cover both the Haiti situation and new evidence regarding the Vatican's continuing cover-up of clergy sex abuse.

The Questionable Actions of an Adoption Organization in Haiti

A Baptist group's actions in Haiti have recently triggered controversy. The group's website states that they intended "to rescue orphans from Port-au-Prince," but questions have been raised about their intentions and their operation.

At this early stage, a few facts seem apparent: First, the group attempted to take 33 children to the Dominican Republic, though their original intent had been to transport 100. It is not clear what they intended to do with the children after they arrived in the Dominican Republic, but the group was linked to the "New Life Adoption Foundation," which seeks to arrange adoptions for Christian parents who cannot afford to adopt through the ordinary channels.

Second, the group did not go through proper legal channels and, therefore, failed to do minimal due diligence -- which, at the very least, would have revealed to them that some of the children that they had taken were not orphans; rather, these children had parents in Haiti with whom they could, in the future, be reunited as circumstances in Haiti improved.

Third, the essence of the group's defense appears to be that God and their faith led them to Haiti, and that a religious group in Haiti gave them the children. However, Haitian officials appear poised to make them an example of Haiti's intention to protect its children from exploitation of any kind in the midst of its earthquake crisis.

Whether this group is a bunch of bumbling do-gooders or something more nefarious, the facts available thus far suggest that they crossed the line with their apparent disregard of the basic legal principles governing all adoptions, and with their reported failure to look into the children's actual familial relationships. Even if they intended to eventually fix their "paperwork" problems, they reportedly removed the children from Haiti into the Dominican Republican without knowing whether they still had family ties in Haiti -- a decision that violate every principle underlying adoption laws. It would be illuminating to learn whether the New Life Adoption Foundation has gone to other countries before, to secure children for Christian parents without the resources for ordinary adoptions, and if so, precisely how they did so. For this observer at least, it appears that, once again, the interests of children were likely being sacrificed for the interests of religiously-motivated adults.

The good news, though, is that the children were returned to Haiti and are currently under the care of a reputable adoption organization from Austria that has been operating in Haiti for 30 years. The children are getting needed medical care and, where possible, the issue of finding their family members and reuniting them with the children is being addressed. The primary reason that the children are now in a better position is that the Haitian government imposed its law to forestall harm to its children.

The Emerging Hard Evidence of the Vatican's Role in the Cover-up of Child Sex Abuse in the United States and Elsewhere

Would that the American government had acted as Haiti is now acting -- and aggressively used its own laws to saved the many children here who have been abused by Catholic clergy. But here, for decades, legal action was blocked by a church cover-up that was mandated from the top down. Experts in the field have long known that the widespread abuse of children by priests was perpetuated by executive decisions from the highest levels of the Roman Catholic Church. But only recently has there been evidence of the actual role of the Vatican – emerging from both Ireland and the United States.

Ireland has produced two impressive reports detailing the widespread sex abuse by Catholic clergy in orphanages and elsewhere: Yvonne Murphy et al., Commission of Investigation: Report into the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin (2009) and Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, Commission Report (2009) . The most recent report – the Murphy Report -- documents the significant role that the Vatican has played in monitoring and directing the handling of child sex abuse.

At one point, the Catholic Church was part of the government of Ireland, so, in theory, the Irish experience might have been unique. But in fact, the Murphy Report establishes that abusing Irish priests were shipped to the United States, where they continued to commit their abuse of children. In addition, recent documents disclosed in Wisconsin litigation make it quite clear that the Vatican has been orchestrating the handling of abuse – and ensuring that abuse is covered up, and not revealed.

As one Irish observer, former history professor Sean O'Conaill, has persuasively argued, it is patently obvious now that this is a worldwide problem that has been managed from the highest levels of the Catholic Church, for "only the papacy has the authority to discipline errant bishops" and yet it has failed to institute accountability. O'Connail adds, "The Church still refuses to hold to account bishops who endanger children. We know that only secular agencies have done that -- civil courts, media, and the state. Only upon the public outcry as a result of the Murphy Report did four Irish bishops finally resign, each protesting his innocence."

O'Connail concludes that "The Church is still unable to regulate itself. Its central system of governance is dysfunctional. The papacy appears entirely willing to tolerate this state of affairs, misrepresenting this Dublin crisis as though it had nothing in common with Boston in 2002, Philadelphia in 2004 or Los Angeles in 2007, not to mention Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Europe, Africa and Latin America."

The Newly-Discovered Evidence in a Wisconsin Case Confirms the Findings in Ireland

The Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy has been credibly accused of abusing over 100 deaf boys, and now there is solid proof that the bishops of Wisconsin and the Vatican were more concerned about the Church's internal procedural niceties than bringing Murphy to justice or protecting children. There is also proof that the Vatican's primary response to these issues is ice-cold. Higher-ups either neglect to respond to requests for guidance from the American bishops or they put the demands of elderly abusing priests above the need for internal fact-finding and justice. Nowhere is there a trace of concern about civil law or legal obligations.

On July 17, 1996, Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee wrote to Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger -- who was, at the time, the head of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (he is now, of course, Pope Benedict XVI) -- for guidance in handling multiple instances of abuse at St. John School for the Deaf in Milwaukee. The offending priest had solicited sex from children in the confessional.

Then, having heard nothing by March 1997 from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Weakland wrote a letter on the same matter to the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. Again, he asked what he was supposed to do with respect to Murphy, whom he now suspected of having abused many more victims.

Within the same month, Tarcisio Bertone, the Secretary to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, responded. He instructed Archbishop Weakland to follow the procedures set forth in the 1962 Crimen Sollicitationis document in which the Vatican. directs Catholics to avoid "scandal" by keeping sexual abuse of children and animals (as well as homosexuality) secret, and to follow specific, secret procedures for handling these issues – or face the threat of excommunication. One of the persistent themes of Weakland's missives to the Vatican is his fear of impending "scandal."

Even though the Church's internal statutes of limitations on the charges against Murphy had expired, a trial of Murphy was still set. Nor was Weakland the only bishop seeking guidance regarding this prolific abuser; the Bishop of Superior, Raphael Fliss, also wrote to the Congregation of the Faith, saying that he thought an internal trial of Murphy was necessary. Yet, Murphy himself then wrote to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, admitting his transgressions, but asking to be relieved from having to undergo a trial, because he was elderly and ill and the alleged conduct had occurred decades before. He just wanted to live out his life as a priest in good standing.

A month after Murphy had made his plea to avoid the Church's internal procedures, Weakland and Fliss flew to Rome and met with Bertone and his staff. The notes from the meeting indicate that the Congregation decided to follow Murphy's reasoning, and did not encourage them to carry through with a church trial. The end result was that no action was ever taken against Murphy within the Church. And, there was certainly no criminal action pursued outside. Murphy should have been turned over to prosecutors and the victims should have been the central focus. Child perpetrators do not "age out" of their criminal predilections; thus, while the bishops and the Vatican higher-ups dithered, Murphy was free to prey. Even though they knew he had had numerous victims, this likelihood is not acknowledged in any of the correspondence. Their negligence was criminal.

Because civil authorities were cut out of the process, Murphy's misdeeds were never known -- until today, when civil litigation led by pathbreaking litigator Jeff Anderson has finally led to the discovery of the first hard proof that we have in the United States that the Vatican itself has actively participated in orchestrating and directing its grossly deficient practices for handling child sex abuse within the institution. Finally, too, the unearthing of this evidence proves that the civil law is yielding far better results for society than permitting the Church to operate within its secret sphere. It is apparent that the civil clergy-abuse lawsuits, like the Irish reports, are essential in learning the truth, aiding survivors, and protecting children.

As both of these developments in Haiti and the Vatican reveal, around the world, we have a long way to go in the emerging civil rights movement for children. The first question in each of these scenarios should have been: What is best for the children? Until everyone, including religious organizations, starts making that question the priority, children will be hurt.

Marci Hamilton, a FindLaw columnist, is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and author of Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children (Cambridge 2008). A review of Justice Denied appeared on this site on June 25, 2008. Her previous book is God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge University Press 2005), now available in paperback. Her email is

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