The Media

The story of a 40-year cover-up
March 31, 2010
By Marie Rohde

A national firestorm raged last week after lawyers released documents linking the cover up of sexual abuse of children in Wisconsin to Pope Benedict XVI. Yet, there is still far more to the story: an extraordinary tale of how countless officials failed to pursue legal charges against the abusive priest, Father Lawrence Murphy. Among these officials were Archbishop Rembert Weakland and his two predecessors as archbishop, former Milwaukee County District Attorney E. Michael McCann and his deputy prosecutor, William Gardner, and St. Francis Police.

All knew about the allegations that Murphy abused boys who were students at the St. John’s School for the Deaf in St. Francis, as NewsBuzz found in reviewing records released by St. Paul lawyer Jeffrey Anderson. Anderson has represented victims in this and other clergy abuse cases.

Some 200 men have by now accused Murphy of sexually abusing them. Critics have charged that church officials seemed more concerned about protecting the church and the priest from dishonor.

The key document, which was first reported by The New York Times last week, was a letter from Murphy to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then head of the Vatican Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome and now Pope Benedict XVI. In the 1996 letter to Ratzinger, Murphy, then 75, begs to be allowed to live his remaining days as a priest. Ratzinger did not respond but a decision by his office quoted Murphy’s reasoning when they decided not to kick him out of the priesthood.

Two other documents from the records requested by Anderson are nearly as explosive:

bullet A letter from Wisconsin bishops to Ratzinger asking that they be allowed to conduct a church trial on the allegations against Murphy. Ratzinger’s office sided with Murphy and refused permission for the trial. The letter that ended the case against Murphy was signed by the Ratzinger’s No. 2 man, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. Bertone is still No. 2 to his boss: He is now the Vatican Secretary of State.
bullet An electronic translation of a transcript of a 1996 meeting in Rome run by Bertone and attended by Weakland, Milwaukee Auxiliary Bishop Richard Sklba and Superior, Wis., Bishop Raphael Fliss, where they discussed what to do with Murphy. The meeting did not result in any action being taken against Murphy.

As stunning as the revelations in these documents is the manner in which they were obtained. Months ago, Milwaukee archdiocesan representatives told lawyers for the victims that all requested documents had been produced. But Michael Finnegan, a lawyer working with Anderson, said his firm found hints of more in documents produced by the Superior, Wis., Diocese. Murphy had served for years in Superior after leaving Milwaukee in 1974 but remained under the supervision of the Milwaukee archdiocese, so records on Murphy must have been shared by the two dioceses.

“We told Milwaukee that we got stuff from Superior that had come from Milwaukee,” Finnegan tells NewsBuzz. “We told them there had to be more in their files and that if they didn’t produce it, we’d go to court, and they could explain what was going on.”

As it turned out, most of the most damning information eventually came from the Milwaukee files.

Lawyers representing other victims of sex abuse by priests have often fought, without success, to get such records from American archdioceses. Former Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland has offered contradictory testimony as to what files the archdiocese did or didn’t have.

Under questioning by Anderson in November 2009 as to whether secret archives existed, Weakland said this in his sworn testimony: ”I’ve heard about it but I’ve never seen those files and I don’t know if the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has such things.” Yet, when he was deposed in 1993 on another abuse case, Weakland admitted he routinely shredded weekly reports about sex abuse by priests. But he said he shredded copies of the records, not the originals.

Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist and former Benedictine monk who regular follows clergy sex abuse cases, notes on his Web page that every bishop must promise the pope they will keep secret anything revealed to them that would harm or dishonor the church. Sipe goes on to say that the knowledge of sex abuse of minors is widespread in the halls of the Vatican.

Father Murphy served as director of the now defunct St. John’s School for the Deaf in St. Francis, Wis., from 1950 to 1974, and was known as a personable, prodigious fundraiser. The documents Anderson provided show archdiocesan officials were aware of abuse early on yet declined for more than two decades to take action against Murphy.

The late Father David Walsh was the chaplain to Chicago’s deaf. When deaf boys he had recruited for the school told of abuse by Murphy in the mid-1950s, he took the matter to Albert Meyer, then archbishop of Milwaukee. Meyer, according to a letter penned by Walsh, said Murphy at first

denied the allegations but later acknowledged that they were true. Murphy was sent on a spiritual retreat and told to return to the school to undo the harm he had done. In a 1970s civil lawsuit brought by a Murphy victim, Meyer’s successor, Archbishop William Cousins, testified that he was aware of the allegations, but that they were unproven.

Walsh continued to hear about the abuse and took the complaints to the Milwaukee bishops repeatedly. When that failed, Walsh eventually contacted the papal nuncio, the pope’s ambassador to the U.S. There is no record showing he ever got a response.

Although no punitive action was taken against Murphy, he was eventually asked by archdiocesan officials to leave St. John’s in 1974. Once transferred to the Diocese of Superior, Murphy continued to function as a parish priest there until 1993 when he was forced to resign. There, Murphy taught religious education classes to 10th graders, was a popular youth retreat master, taught sign language at a technical college and continued to minister to the deaf community, even visiting them in Milwaukee on many occasions.

Records suggest the abuse by Murphy may have continued. A recent suit against the archdiocese by Donald Marshall claims he was assaulted in 1976 while in solitary confinement at a state juvenile facility. Documents show that church officials determined based on the victim’s description of the abuser that the culprit was Father Murphy.

Murphy’s trips back to Milwaukee were a sore point. Father James Alby, a hearing-impaired Episcopal priest who worked at St. John’s in the early 1970s, wrote to the Milwaukee Archdiocese several times to complain about Murphy showing up at deaf community events here, saying his presence was painful for many former students. In a Nov. 12, 1987, letter to Weakland’s No. 2 man, Auxiliary Bishop Richard Sklba, Alby asked Sklba to order Murphy to stay away from an upcoming event: “I personally believe that it is time for you to stick your head out since you are empowered by your office of bishop as a custodian of Christian Faith that includes the teaching of morality.”

Sklba’s reply: Alby must “realize that a large segment of the hearing impaired community insists on inviting Father Murphy and this must be dealt with respectfully and prayerfully.”

As recent as last fall, the Milwaukee Archdiocese was saying that all the facts in the Murphy case had been made public years earlier. Jerry Topczewski, spokesman for the archdiocese, told a joint committee of the legislature there had been a police investigation of Murphy – although the investigation by the St. Francis police wasn’t reported at the time – and that he was the subject of many news stories.

Before the recent scandal broke, the only stories to hit the press came in 2006 when Mary Zahn wrote about the case in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She reported that her efforts to tell the story for the Milwaukee Sentinel back in 1974 were thwarted when newspaper lawyers ruled the story could not run because no charges had been issued.

Arthur Budzinski, a former St. John’s student, was among several victims of Murphy who say they went to the office of Milwaukee County District Attorney E. Michael McCann in 1974 to report the abuse. They met with then-assistant district attorney William Gardner. In Zahn’s story, she quoted Gardner saying the cases brought to him were too old to pursue, though he believed the allegations were true. Budzinski, however, has asked why no one from the D.A. or the St. Francis police went to the school to look for other victims from more recent years.

In some news accounts, Weakland appears almost heroic for his efforts to get rid of Murphy. But documents suggest he tried to keep a lid on the scandal. Yes, Murphy’s name was on a list of abusers released in 2004 by the archdiocese but little information had been made public earlier.

On January 21, 1993, Weakland wrote to Murphy saying he accepted his retirement request for health reasons. “I want to say thanks for the zeal you have shown through the years,” Weakland wrote. “May God continue to bless you in every way and be gentle and kind with you.”

The archdiocese, however, did try to put constraints on Murphy in his retirement. On Dec. 1, 1993, Sklba wrote to Murphy to confirm that he had been ordered to not participate in any sacramental celebrations and “not engage in any unsupervised contact with minors.” Murphy was also ordered to stay out of parish religious education programs.

Yet, five years later, Weakland learned that Murphy listed his contact information in the Wisconsin Telecommunications directory used by the deaf community. “Such an action is either direct and flagrant disobedience or further indication that you still do not grasp the seriousness of the circumstances that have arisen as a result of your past behavior,” Weakland wrote in a July 15, 1998, letter. Any further violations of the orders “will result in the imposition of penalties,” Weakland added.

Murphy died about a month later, leaving an estate of more than $750,000.

The chronically abusive priest was buried in his vestments. Sklba officiated at the funeral and came close to revealing Murphy’s past when he obliquely mentioned in the middle of his remarks that the priest had caused great pain as well as great good. Murphy’s brother James was so irate that he complained to the papal nuncio, saying that many of Murphy’s relatives knew nothing of the allegations.

After Murphy’s death, Weakland wrote two letters, one to Rome saying “we are still hoping to avoid undue publicity;” the other to a nun saying he had ordered the funeral be private. He did so, Weakland wrote, in order to protect Murphy’s good name and reputation.


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