Late, yes, but abuse was addressed

07 April 2010

The case of Fr Lawrence Murphy in Milwaukee triggered the latest scandals about child sexual abuse. But the RC authorities were not idle, says Thomas Brundage

I WAS the Judicial Vicar for the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Milwaukee from 1995-2003. During those years, I presided over four ca­non­ical crim­inal cases, one of which involved Fr Lawrence Murphy. Two of the four men died during the process. God alone will judge these men.

Since my name and comments in the Fr Murphy case have been liberally, and often inaccurately, quoted in The New York Times and in more than 100 other newspapers and online periodicals, I feel a freedom to tell part of the story of Fr Murphy’s trial from ground zero.

I am also writing out of a sense of duty to the truth. The fact that I presided over this trial and have never once been contacted by any news organisation for comment speaks for itself.

One reason to write is to assert that Pope Benedict XVI has done more than any other pope or bishop in history to rid the Catholic Church of the scourge of child sexual abuse and provide for those who have been injured. The Catholic Church is probably the safest place for children at this point in history.

Before proceeding, it is important to point out the scourge that child sexual abuse has been — not only for the Church, but for society as well. Few actions can distort a child’s life more than sexual abuse. It is a form of emotional and spiritual homicide, and it starts a trajectory toward a skewed sense of sexuality. When committed by a person in authority, it creates a distrust of almost anyone, anywhere.

As a volunteer prison chaplain in Alaska, I have found a corollary between those who have been incarcerated for child sexual abuse and the priests who have committed such grievous actions. They tend to be very smart and manipulative. They tend to be well liked and charming. They tend to have one aim in life — to satisfy their hunger.


Most are highly narcissistic, and do not see the harm that they have caused. They view the children they have abused not as people, but as ob­jects. They rarely show remorse and, moreover, sometimes portray them­selves as the victims. They are, in short, dangerous people, and, should never be trusted again. Most will recom­mit their crimes if given a chance.

IN 1996, I was introduced to the story of Fr Murphy, formerly the principal of St John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee. It had been common knowledge for decades that during Fr Murphy’s tenure at the school (1950-74) there had been a scandal at St John’s involving him and some deaf children. The details, however, were sketchy at best.

Courageous advocacy on behalf of the victims (and often their wives), led the archdiocese of Milwaukee to revisit the matter in 1996. In internal discussions of the curia for the archdiocese of Milwaukee, it became obvious that we needed to take strong and swift action with regard to the wrongs of several decades ago. With the consent of Archbishop Rembert Weakland, we began an investigation into the allegations of child sexual abuse, as well as the violation of the crime of solicitation within the confessional by Fr Murphy.

We proceeded to start a trial against Fr Murphy. I was the presid­ing judge in this matter, and in­formed Fr Murphy that criminal charges were going to be levied against him with regard to child sexual abuse and solicitation in the confessional.

In my interactions with Fr Murphy, I got the impression I was dealing with a man who simply did not get it. He was defensive and threat­ening.

Between 1996 and August 1998, I interviewed, with the help of a qualified interpreter, about a dozen victims of Fr Murphy. These were gut-wrenching interviews. In one instance, the victim had become a perpetrator himself, and had served time in prison for his crimes. I realised that this disease is virulent, and was easily transmitted to others.

I heard stories of distorted lives, sexualities diminished or expunged. These were the darkest days of my own priesthood, having been ordained less than ten years at the time. Grace-filled spiritual direction has been a godsend.

I also met a community board of deaf Catholics. They insisted that Fr Murphy should be removed from the priesthood, and highly important to them was their request that he be buried not as a priest but as a lay­person. I indicated that, as a judge, I could not guarantee the first request, and could only make a recom­mendation on the latter request.


IN THE summer of 1998, I ordered Fr Murphy to be present at a deposi­tion at the chancery in Milwaukee. I received, soon after, a letter from his doctor stating that he was in frail health, and could travel not more than 20 miles. (Boulder Junction to Milwaukee would be about 276 miles.) A week later, Fr Murphy died of natural causes in a location about 100 miles from his home.

In the documentation in a letter from Archbishop Weakland to the then-secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, on 19 August 1998, Archbishop Weak­land stated that he had in­structed me to abate the proceedings against Fr Murphy. Fr Murphy, however, died only two days later, and the fact is that, on the day he died, he was still the defendant in a church criminal trial. No one seems to be aware of this.

I HAVE no reason to believe that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, was involved at all. Placing this matter at his doorstep is a huge leap of logic and information.

The competency to hear cases of sexual abuse of minors shifted from the Roman Rota to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by Cardinal Ratzinger, in 2001. It was our experience that cases could languish for years in the Rota.

When the competency was changed to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, sexual-abuse cases were handled expeditiously, fairly, and with due regard to the rights of all the parties involved. I have no doubt that this was the work of the then Cardinal Ratzinger.

Pope Benedict has repeatedly apologised for the shame of the sexual abuse of children in various venues, and to a worldwide audi­ence. This has never happened before. He has met victims. He has reined in entire conferences of bishops on this matter, the Roman Catholic Bishops of Ireland being the most recent. He has been most re­active and proactive of any inter­national church official in history with regard to the scourge of clergy sexual abuse of minors.

Instead of blaming him for in­action, we should recognise that he has truly been a strong and effective leader on these issues.

FINALLY, over the past 25 years, vigorous action has taken place within the Church to avoid harm to children. Potential seminarians re­ceive extensive sexual-psycho­logical evaluation before admis­sion. Vir­tually all seminaries concentrate their efforts on a safe environment for children. There have been very few cases of recent sexual abuse of children by clergy during the past decade or more.


Roman Catholic dioceses all across the United States have taken extraordinary steps to ensure the safety of children and vulnerable adults. One example, which is by no means unique, is in the archdiocese of Anchorage, where I currently work. Here, virtually every public bathroom in parishes has a sign asking if a person has been abused by anyone in the Church. A phone number is given to report the abuse, and almost all church workers in the archdiocese are required to take yearly formation sessions in safe-environment classes. I am not sure what more the Church can do.

To conclude, the events during the 1960s and ’70s of the sexual abuse of minors and solicitation in the confessional by Fr Murphy are un­mitigated and gruesome crimes. On behalf of the Church, I am deeply sorry and ashamed for the wrongs that have been done by my brother priests, but realise my sorrow is probably of little import­ance 40 years after the fact.

The only thing that we can do at this time is to learn the truth, beg for forgiveness, and do whatever is humanly possible to heal the wounds. The rest, I am grateful, is in God’s hands.

This is an edited version of an article that appears on The Catholic Anchor, the official newspaper website of the RC archdiocese of Anchorage:

This is an edited version of an article that appears on The Catholic Anchor, the official newspaper website of the RC archdiocese of Anchorage:

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