Sins of the Father?
5 Decades after a Priest Allegedly Molested 3 Brothers, Their Case Plays out
By Paul Asay
The Gazette [Colorado Springs CO]
February 18, 2007
John Murphy said he heard the priest snort and grunt. He felt his bulk push him deep into the mattress. He smelled his Vicks VapoRub cream.
John said he was terrified — scared the fleshy priest would suffocate him before he was done. He was 7 years old, he said, when the Rev. Leonard Abercrombie first molested him.
John, who lives in Colorado Springs, is 61 now, with gray hair, a grooved face and a raspy, tobacco-ravaged laugh. But the memories hold fast: the grunting, the weight, the smell of Vicks. To this day, he said, the scent makes him sick.
He's one of three Murphy brothers who say they were abused
by Abercrombie. For decades they kept their secret, even from one another. Now they want the Catholic Church to pay for what they say Abercrombie did to them.
Though Abercrombie has been dead 13 years, John can't be rid of him. The priest, John says, is not done with him yet.
Nearly 4,400 priests were accused of sexual abuse from 1950 to 2002, according to a 2004 study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and sponsored by the Catholic Church. Most of the victims were boys under age 14.
The Catholic Church has paid out more than $1 billion to those allegedly abused, and a handful of dioceses have filed for bankruptcy.
The Diocese of Colorado Springs has escaped the brunt of the scandal so far. It was formed in 1984, after most of the abuses had occurred. According to Ed Gaffney, the diocesan director of pastoral services, the diocese knows of three credible allegations against former priests, none of which resulted in a lawsuit.
It's a different story in the Archdiocese of Denver. The Archdiocese has been hit with at least 35 lawsuits over the actions of two of its priests — Abercrombie and the Rev. Harold White. Both are dead, and the diocese must clean up the mess they left behind. The Archdiocese recently settled lawsuits brought by 15 alleged victims for a total of nearly $1.6 million. Alleged victims of Abercrombie received $600,000 in the settlement.
The Murphy brothers were not part of that settlement. They say money's not the primary issue: disclosure is.
In August, Marty, John and Ed Murphy filed lawsuits in Denver's District Court against the Archdiocese of Denver, saying they're entitled to damages for Abercrombie's molestation of them in the 1950s. Abercrombie was a danger to children, the suit says, and it alleges the Archdiocese either knew or should have known.
The lawsuit doesn't have a dollar amount attached to the damages. It's early, their lawyer says, and the brothers say their main goal is to open the Archdiocese's closed Abercrombie files. They want to know whether the Archdiocese received other complaints about Abercrombie. They want to know whether the Archdiocese, like other dioceses around the country, downplayed the danger he posed and moved him from parish to parish.
"I'm convinced that there was a complaint against Abercrombie over pedophilia prior to the Murphys," John said.
Abercrombie died in 1994, and he never publicly confessed to any wrongdoing. The brothers' allegations cannot be corroborated by the only other man who would know.
The Archdiocese of Denver declined comment on the Murphy suits.
"There is no reason to discuss legal strategy with the media," said diocesan spokeswoman Jeanette De Melo in an e-mail.
RAISED IN FAITH
The Murphy family was as Catholic as they come.
Their parents, attorney Martin J. Murphy and his wife, Gertrude, were extremely active in the city's Broadmoor-area parish, St. Paul's, then under the direction of the Archdiocese of Denver. Martin gave thousands of dollars to help build St. Paul's Catholic Church and the Pauline Memorial School. Gertrude won an award from the Vatican for her work with World War II prisoners of war, who were kept in Colorado Springs.
The family went to Mass every day. And, when the boys grew old enough, they were sent to the Catholic Camp St. Malo in the summer, a green slice of paradise east of Rocky Mountain National Park.
While most other campers were there for a week, the Murphys often stayed for six. It was during the summer of 1950 that elder brother Marty Murphy first met Leonard Abercrombie.
Abercrombie was born in 1921 and ordained in the Denver diocese in 1946. By the time he found the Murphys, he had already served at St. Joseph's in Golden and St. Francis de Sales in Denver, and in 1950-53 he was an Air Force chaplain. The Murphys say he also served at Camp St. Malo as the camp's chaplain. He slept in a trailer parked by St. Catherine Chapel.
He was, according to John, a talented priest.
"The man was a great speaker," he said. "He could be the impresario, the master of ceremonies.
"He was the kind of guy who'd buy you milkshakes and take you to movies and had a never-ending source of treats," Marty said. "It was a special invitation to be his acolyte."
Marty, 65, now a doctor in North Carolina, was the first Murphy brother to be allegedly abused but the last to speak about it. His memories of Aber- crombie are indistinct, he said. "Shrouded."
But he remembers more than he'd like.
Marty remembers that Abercrombie paid special attention to him. You're special, he told 8-year-old Marty. You have the makings of a priest.
For the deeply devout boy, it was the highest of compliments. Catholic priests had clout. They were the vicars of Christ, emissaries for God, Marty said. They could change bread into flesh and wine into blood. They held the keys to heaven in their hands.
"I really thought at that time that I wanted to be a priest," he said. "And here was this opportunity to be, if you will, hand-tutored."
He declined to talk about the alleged abuse itself. But to this day, he says, he's still ashamed: Not because of what Abercrombie allegedly did to him, but because he didn't shield his younger brothers from the same abuse. He was the oldest, he said. It was his responsibility.
"I didn't protect my brothers," Marty said. "I didn't know."
TRUSTED FAMILY FRIEND
John said Abercrombie singled him out during one of his "educational" talks at Camp St. Malo. The priest gathered groups of three or four boys, John said, and quizzed them about their bodies — whether they knew what an erection was or were circumcised.
John didn't know why Abercrombie picked him out of the group. But it opened the door to being one of Abercrombie's special charges.
"He had been grooming me," John said. "He had been building me up and smiling at me and what not, you know. Just when I thought he was the biggest guy in the whole world next to my dad, he got me in the trailer."
The ruse, John said, was for Abercrombie to say it was "nap time." He would lead him back to the trailer and they would lie down together.
"He'd pretend that he'd be asleep," John said. "We know it's pretend. He knows that I know. But still, he couldn't really face it that much until much later."
By the time Abercrombie allegedly began molesting Ed, now a 58-year-old Colorado Springs resident, the priest had become a trusted family friend.
"We loved everything about being around him except sleeping with him," John said.
For a pedophile to move through a family is not uncommon, according to Jeb Barrett, Denver leader for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
"When one boy gets a little too old for him, he goes to the next one in line," Barrett said. "They spend a lot of time grooming the whole family, usually."
Abercrombie, who served a number of rural parishes, made the brothers his traveling altar boys. He'd pick them up in Colorado Springs, often staying overnight with the Murphys before they left the next morning.
Ed was the only brother victimized in their own house, say the brothers.
"He was totally brazen by then," John said.
Their parents, now both dead, trusted Abercrombie completely. The priest and the Murphy boys would hop from parish to parish: Deer Trail, Strasburg, Hugo, Limon, Roggen. Sometimes John and Ed would go with their father to visit Abercrombie at Sacred Heart church in Roggen. They'd stay overnight there — one boy sleeping with his father and the other with Abercrombie.
"It was always a nervous issue," Ed said.
Ed said his last sexual encounter with Abercrombie was in 1958, when Ed was 10 years old.
After the abuse stopped, John remembers traveling to Denver, where his father and Abercrombie met with Archbishop Urban Vehr. During that meeting, John's father pleaded with the archbishop to give Abercrombie — the man who, unbeknownst to him, had molested his three sons — control of a city parish.
"Martin," John remembers Vehr saying, "the church has its reasons."
John suspects he knows why Vehr denied Abercrombie his city parish. He thinks Vehr knew Abercrombie was a pedophile.
ROAD TO RECOVERY
People respond to childhood sexual abuse in a variety of ways, according to Louis Hoffman, a Colorado Springs psychologist. Many suffer anxiety or depression. Some abuse alcohol and drugs. Relationships become problematic, and some victims have difficulty with attachment or intimacy.
Those abused by priests have another hurdle.
"It can affect how they experience and perceive the church," Hoffman said, "and how they experience and perceive God."
The earlier the truth comes out, said Hoffman, the easier it is to deal with. Those who keep it secret into adulthood must work longer on getting over it.
"The common five or 10 sessions will not be sufficient for them," Hoffman said.
John was the first to break the silence.
It happened at a neighborhood card party in the 1970s, when he was in his 20s. He had much to drink and, when his neighbors heaped one-toomany compliments on a local priest, he let it rip.
"I told them what I thought of priests," he said.
John's wife, Mary Kay, didn't know before that night.
"I just about croaked," she said. They talked it out later that night, and she later left the church as her husband had.
"It explained a lot of things in our marriage," she said. "His disdain for the clergy and things like that."
He began talking with his brothers. Ed and John talked about the molestation for the first time when they were in their 40s. Marty didn't talk about his experiences until he was in his 50s.
Telling their parents was difficult. Martin and Gertrude were still sending money and Christmas cards to Abercrombie. They were also frustrated because John had stopped going to Mass.
"Finally, in the presence of them both, I said I was molested by Father Abercrombie, their close personal friend," John recounted. "And they looked right through me."
For years after that revelation, Martin and Gertrude continued to correspond with Abercrombie, cutting contact only after John's sister, Sheila, confronted Abercrombie over the phone. Abercrombie made a partial confession to her, according to John, saying he and John had "wet dreams."
John started seeing a psychologist in 1992. In 1993, under his psychologist's guidance, John wrote a letter to Pope John Paul II. It was nine years before The Boston Globe "broke" the story of pedophile priests, and how dioceses sometimes moved priests to different parishes rather than taking away their collars.
"It's strange, but I can almost forgive the corpulent Abercrombie," John wrote, "for he was, and probably still is, a very sick person — but I will never forgive that so-called 'great churchman' Archbishop Vehr for failing to protect me and the others that I know of and those I do not."
Abercrombie died a year later.
Ed is a recovering alcoholic and has been married four times. Ed admitted he wanted to forget that his encounters with Abercrombie ever happened. Now, he said, he's come around to John's way of thinking. He wants the Archdiocese to open its files.
He and John have both left the church and have given up their faith in God.
Marty was the last to come forward. It didn't happen until last year, when he and his brothers pleaded with Colorado senators to lift the state's statute of limitations in cases of child sexual abuse. They succeeded — a victory that allows lawsuits such as the Murphys' a half-century hence.
Marty's still a practicing Catholic.
"I think the church is Christ," he said. "But those who happen to represent him are fallible. I don't find it all that surprising that there are some really bad guys, just as there are some really good guys."
Marty insisted the church must "divulge what it knows" about Abercrombie. Did the priest abuse others who haven't filed lawsuits, and did the Archdiocese know the priest was a pedophile before he encountered the Murphys and still did nothing? He called the situation evil: "Not only the act and the perversion," he said, "but the cloth and the collar and the sanctity that was used."
"The average sexual predator has between 250 and 350 victims," said Barrett, Denver SNAP leader. "The average predator was out there for 16 years before he was caught and put away." Barrett wants abusive priests to be revealed and, for him, that means laying open the Catholic Church's records for all to see.
Only a handful of dioceses have opened their records to the public. Most, including the Diocese of Colorado Springs and the Archdiocese of Denver, keep them sealed.
"What's important to a lot of these victims is not necessarily the monetary rewards, but a process where they can get their stories out," said Thomas Roberts, the Murphys' lawyer. "Hopefully, we will get a chance to force the Archdiocese to turn over these documents and come to terms with what's been done to them."
After his testimony before the Senate last year, Marty said he was greeted by a stranger in the hallway. The stranger was out of breath and crying, Murphy recalled, and he asked whether he could give Marty a hug.
"I was one of Abercrombie's, too," Marty remembers him saying. "I was never able to say anything."
TO LEARN MORE
For those who want to learn more about the Roman Catholic sex-abuse scandal, and what the church is doing about it, here are a few Web sites:
- www.bishop-accountability.org — A comprehensive site detailing the scandal. The site includes news stories, church documents and brief biographies of accused priests.
- www.snapnetwork.org — Site for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. It offers news and counseling advice to victims of sexual abuse by priests.
- www.usccb.org/ocyp/ — Home page for the Office of Child and Youth Protection for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It includes a link to the Bishops' Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
- www.archden.org/child-and-youth-protection/index.php — The Archdiocese of Denver offers information on its own youth-protection policies, as well as information on how to report sexual abuse to the archdiocese.
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.