Staring Abuse Straight in the Face
After Years of Suffering, Former Students of St. John's School for the Deaf Confront the Priest Who Assaulted Them As Boys, Demanding He Accept Blame

By Mary Zahn
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
March 27, 2006

Second of two parts

[See also the other articles in this feature: Shared Secrets Reveal Much Suffering in Silence, by Mary Zahn, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (3/26/06); Range of Settlements for Victims Questioned, by Mary Zahn, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (3/26/06); Editorial: A Window for Accountability, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (3/27/06); and a Gallery of Photographs with notes on this feature]

On a warm day in June 1997, two middle-aged deaf men drove to the lake cottage of a Catholic priest who molested them decades before, when they were in grade school.

Flooded with memories and anger, they drove around for more than an hour looking for the place Father Lawrence Murphy had been allowed to retire more than 20 years earlier.

Finally they saw the lake, and the house came into view.

At his West Allis home, Arthur Budzinski holds a flier warning about Father Lawrence Murphy, who died in 1998. Robert Bolger, on the TV screen during a videoconference, took steps in the 1970s to file complaints of sexual abuse against Murphy. The priest denied the allegations and was never charged.
Photo/Rick Wood
Steve Geier, at his Madison home with his wife, Ann, says he reported the sexual abuse by Father Murphy to three priests on three occasions through the years. Two indicated they did not believe him, and one told him to forget about it.
Photo/Rick Wood
Gary Smith signs as he shares his story of abuse by Father Lawrence Murphy at St. Johns School for the Deaf. Smith began having flashbacks about the abuse in his 20s and shared his experience with former classmates.
Photo/Kristyna Wentz-Graff
Gary Smith (shown in the 1971 St. Johns yearbook) says he felt alone during the abuse.
Father Murphy (center) accepts a check for $16,000 on behalf of St. Johns School for the Deaf from the Knights of Columbus in 1966. Murphy, who was fluent in American Sign Language, was a tireless fund-raiser for St. Johns, where he worked from 1950 to 1974. By all accounts, Murphy was much revered in the deaf community.

Both men jumped out of the car. Arthur Budzinski held a video camera, and Robert Bolger ran up to the door of the cottage, knocked and rang the doorbell. They saw Murphy by the side of the house, wearing a white T-shirt and pants, hurrying to get inside.

"I told Father Murphy, 'You turn yourself in to the police,' " said Bolger, now 62. "We went to the cottage with the goal to confront him and force him to go to the police department and apologize for what he did to our lives."

Instead, Murphy waved them away as if he were swatting at gnats and quickly went back into the cottage.

"That was a long time ago," Murphy said, both speaking and gesturing in American Sign Language. "Don't bother me."

Murphy, who died in 1998, is believed to have molested dozens of boys at St. John's School for the Deaf in St. Francis, where he worked for 24 years. Some of his victims are coming forward to ask the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to compensate them for their suffering. The Journal Sentinel interviewed eight of them.

Murphy's dark side might never have surfaced if not for Bolger, Budzinski and Gary Smith, who began having flashbacks in their 20s about the sexual abuse and started sharing their experiences with each other. In 1974, they decided it was time to tell their secret. They wanted to save other deaf boys from being molested by Murphy.

One year earlier, a deaf boy went to the St. Francis Police Department to report that Murphy molested him, records show. The case was dropped after Murphy told police the boy was mentally retarded, according to a deaf teacher who was at the school at the time.

When the men decided to work together to get Murphy removed from the school, he was well known in both the hearing and deaf community and had influential friends.

Murphy was Midwest adviser to the International Catholic Deaf Association and chaplain of the Cardinal Stritch Council 4614 of the Knights of Columbus, as well as the director of St. John's. A few years before the men began their protests, he had received the American Legion Award for Distinguished Service for Child Welfare.

By all accounts Murphy, who was fluent in American Sign Language, a tireless fund-raiser for St. John's and a wonderful teacher, was much beloved by the deaf community.
Bolger, a graduate of Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., knew it would be an uphill battle.

"I knew he was still molesting boys," said Bolger, who lives in Compton, Calif. "We got the cold shoulder from some members of the deaf community. There were factions. We were not together on this."

As the oldest member of the group, Bolger arranged for several adult victims to go to the Milwaukee County district attorney's office and the St. Francis Police Department to file complaints against Murphy. The men communicated by printing their statements on paper and then pushing them over the desk to the detectives, who wrote back with more questions.

Murphy denied the allegations, and the police investigation was dropped. No criminal charges were issued because the men were adults and the crimes were beyond the statute of limitations.

"It is just hard to communicate with hearing people," said Gary Smith, who lives near San Antonio. "It's like, 'Where do you go?' "

Steve Geier, 55, another of Murphy's victims, was living with his wife and two young children in Madison during the protests against Murphy. He said he reported the abuse to three priests on three separate occasions through the years. Two indicated they did not believe him, and the other told him to forget about it.

Allies in the hearing world

Meanwhile, several hearing people joined in the effort to expose Murphy. At the time John Conway, 58, was working for the state in a vocational rehabilitation program and knew Bolger, who was a printing instructor. Conway is now deputy administrator of the Wisconsin workers compensation program.

Arlene Quant also became involved. Quant owned a Milwaukee printing company and employed deaf men who told her about Murphy. Unable to communicate with their hearing parents, Budzinski, Smith and Bolger asked whether she would call and tell them of the abuse. Their parents, they said, wept at the news.

Quant called the Milwaukee Archdiocese, convinced that Archbishop William Cousins would take action.

"At one point we had 15 to 20 affidavits from adult men who said they had been abused by Murphy," Conway said. "To our glee, the archbishop was willing to meet with us."

Quant delivered the packet of affidavits to the archdiocese, and a meeting with Cousins was scheduled for May 9, 1974.

"We sat down in five or six chairs next to the archbishop," Conway recalled. "Father Murphy was sitting next to me. There were at least a dozen people in the room. Some were other staff from St. John's.

"Father Murphy was very sheepish during the meeting. He didn't say a word. He just looked down."

Conway said he was stunned when the archbishop began to explain that they had been aware of the problem for years.

"Then they proceeded to tell us that they understood our desire to have Father Murphy removed from the school, but they felt that Murphy was so important to the school, its livelihood and history that they did not want to remove him," he said. "Instead they said they would remove him from having any contact with the children. I was frankly shocked."

After faculty members and others described the good things Murphy had done for the deaf community, Conway, who served as an interpreter, said he, Quant and the victims who attended walked out of the meeting in disgust.

"I am driving home, and I cried and cried and Arlene cried," said Budzinski, who attended the meeting. "I felt so grieved."

On May 18, 1974, an article in the Catholic Herald Citizen announced that Murphy had given up his directorship of St. John's, was "relieved of all teaching and pastoral duties as they relate to the students" and was being reassigned to other duties at the school.

In late summer of that year, Quant contacted this reporter, who was covering the Milwaukee County district attorney's office for the Milwaukee Sentinel. Murphy said in an interview about the allegations that he decided to resign because of health problems. The story was published on Sept. 14, 1974. Murphy left the next week.

People would have had to read between the lines to understand why Murphy retired. The Sentinel's attorneys refused to allow any mention of the molestations or what the victims had said because Murphy was not charged criminally.

One line in the story described protest fliers passed out by the victims at Cousins' 25th anniversary celebration at St. John Cathedral in March 1974. The fliers read: "Act Now. To get Lawrence C. Murphy out of St. John's School is a victory of God and other deaf boys at St. John's today."

One year later, Cousins testified he found nothing in his investigation to substantiate any of the complaints about Murphy. That testimony came in a 1975 sworn deposition in a civil lawsuit filed by a victim. Murphy "sacrificed himself for the school" after "harassments and threats," Cousins said under oath. The lawsuit was dropped.

The next year, a reporter for The Milwaukee Journal interviewed St. John's school administrators and church officials for a story about the school's history. Murphy was praised for his "years of teaching, hard work, vast improvements and heavy responsibilities."

It was as if the complaints never happened.

Still acting as a priest

Murphy was allowed to quietly retire to his Boulder Junction cottage where Gary Smith and another victim, who asked not to be identified, said the priest took them and other boys during the summers and molested them. Generally the boys who were the top fund-raisers for St. John's would be chosen for the trip.

Murphy assisted at two parishes in the Boulder Junction area until 1994, when the Archdiocese of Milwaukee discovered he was violating restrictions that prohibited him from performing as a priest and warned him to stop. In the winter of 1994, the archdiocese's deaf ministry newsletter had a short notice that Murphy was "no longer allowed to celebrate the sacraments publicly or privately and will no longer do public interpreting for the deaf." However, Murphy continued to violate some of those restrictions, according to church authorities.

On June 21, 1996, Budzinski, Bolger and Gary Smith drove to Boulder Junction, stayed overnight at a motel and the next morning quietly entered St. Anne Catholic Church, about three miles from Murphy's cottage. They quickly tucked leaflets with a black-and-white photo of Murphy surrounded by the words "Most Wanted" into the hymnals. The men said they were concerned and frustrated that Murphy still had free access to unsuspecting children and their families, and they wanted him arrested.

In that same year, Archbishop Rembert Weakland learned that Murphy still was violating the restrictions and began disciplinary proceedings that could have brought his dismissal from the priesthood, authorities said. The final disciplinary process against Murphy, 72, was pending when he died Aug. 21, 1998.

It took years for many of the religious who worked at the school, former students and even family members of deaf victims to believe that Murphy - a man who gave his entire career to the deaf community - could have committed such abuse. Some went to their graves denying it ever occurred.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.