Jean-Paul Laurens: Le Pape Formose et Etienne VII ("Pope Formosus and Stephen VII"), 1870The New York Times article I blogged about earlier today, about Fr Lawrence C. Murphy, who taught at St John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee, and abused children there but was never disciplined by the Church, has aroused the ire of the Holy See. It responded to the article within hours — much quicker than the Vatican normally deals with things — essentially reiterating its old whine (which I also blogged about before) that it’s all just a vile plot to discredit Pope Benedict XVI by telling lies about him. The Vatican’s own response is here, in the original Italian. The New York Times has mentioned this response, itself (WebCite cached article):

In 1998, top Vatican officials, including the future pope, did not defrock a priest who molested as many as 200 deaf boys in Wisconsin, according to internal church documents obtained by The New York Times from lawyers who are suing church officials. The decision came after the priest, the Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy, appealed to Cardinal Ratzinger for leniency.

The Vatican has said that the abuse dated back decades and that Father Murphy’s age and ill health were reason enough not to dismiss him from the clergy.

It’s kind of funny that the Roman Catholic Church — of all institutions in the world — decided that the age and ill health of an accused man somehow prevented them from trying and punishing him for his crimes. Why do I say that?

Because of history.

I refer to something known as “the Cadaver Synod,” and it took place in 897 CE.

This precious, revealing little episode of Catholic and papal history is one that the Holy See and the rest of the Church likely would rather you not know about. But as fantastic and unbelievable as it sounds, it actually did happen. And it really was about as dreadful as the name sounds.

The story of this wretched affair is convoluted, but I’ll boil it down to a simple statement: For a number of obscure political reasons, Pope Steven VI put his late deceased predecessor, Pope Formosus, on trial for ecclesiastical offenses, so that Formosus could be declared to have been an illegitimate pope, and have all his actions while in office reversed or annulled. To that end, Formosus’s corpse was disinterred, he was dressed in his papal vestments, and tried, as though he were a living defendant standing trial for his supposed offenses.

That’s right, folks: The Roman Catholic Church actually put a dead body on trial.

I’m sure you won’t believe me, but please, feel free to check it out for yourself: From no less an authority than the Catholic Encyclopedia — which in its 1909 edition you can read for free online (with a WebCite cached version) … just scroll down to the last paragraph of the article to read about this little nugget of R.C. history.

At any rate, I have to wonder why anyone in the Vatican would object to putting an infirm old man on trial; after all, if a trial was good enough for the deceased and already-partly-rotting Pope Formosus, then it’s good enough for a sick and aged Fr Murphy … no?

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