The Teflon Monsignor: Despite Documented Facts, Bishop Murphy Still Escapes Blame

By Lauren Wolfe
August 5, 2004
Long Island Press

A small four-drawer cabinet stuck in a hallway, orphaned between one office and another, slowly, over the course of eight years, filled up with stories. Stories like this:

The boy was 16 years old when he stopped attending church. He had been an altar boy for five years by then, so this was a seismic change in his life. He had reached the point where his Guatemalan parents—his father, a Sunday school teacher—were trying to make him understand that what had been done to him was done by only one man, not God.

The boy had worked in a little room that he called his “office” on the second floor of the rectory in Boston. In that little room, he answered the phone and the door. Eventually, the boy said Rev. Dennis Keefe began to visit him, occasionally hugging him. The boy claimed he would ask the father to stop, saying he was “tired” as an excuse. But one day Keefe put his hands around the boy’s throat and pushed him hard against the wall. After that, Keefe fondled the boy’s penis through his pants sometimes, or rubbed his backside against the boy’s penis.

It would be many years before these allegations would come to light, but in the meantime, this boy’s story—like those of other children and other priests—were collected by delegates serving directly under Monsignor William F. Murphy, the same William F. Murphy who is now the Diocesan Bishop of Rockville Centre in Long Island, and thus spiritual leader for hundreds of thousands of Long Island Catholics. Boston’s priestly archivists meticulously filed into that lonely little cabinet all the accusations as well as the correspondence among church leaders about how to deal with them. These papers were known as “the Murphy files,” according to Rev. Brian Flatley, who served under Murphy as the personnel official overseeing accused priests.

[Photo caption: Bishop Murphy speaking about the public’s lack of confidence in his leadership at St. John the Baptist High School in West Islip, in January.]

Bishop Murphy, as number two to Cardinal Bernard F. Law, played a direct and supervisory role in the archdiocese’s responses to accusations of pedophile assaults. He was regularly informed of allegations—the file cabinet was originally kept in his office—and his signature appears on numerous documents authorizing the reassignment of accused priests to other parishes or other duties, with the parishioners none the wiser to the allegations. He covered up the accusations and lied about it. The documents show that. So, unwittingly perhaps, for eight years, Murphy’s assistants gathered evidence against him.

The allegations in the story above were documented by Flatley on March 6, 1995. When Father Keefe finally left the parish that month, Murphy told parishioners it was “for reasons of health.”

But more unnerving than this off-white lie may be the words Murphy wrote in a memo to his underling with the same name, Rev. William F. Murphy, on July 10, 1997: “I have never really studied the file but have accepted the conclusions given to me. My understanding, however, is that his alleged actions are not so grave as are those of others.”

Other priests. Keefe’s alleged sexual abuse is not so grave as those of other priests, Bishop Murphy wrote.

And “not so grave.” Which, possibly, is true, if some of Keefe’s actions are painted alongside these secret acts: the priest who shoved ice down the pants of little boys; the one who took photographs of boys he’d made strip; the one who called rubbing boys’ genitals “our little torture treatment.”

It has been a couple of years since the church scandal swelled. At least 150 priests and cardinals in the Boston diocese and 66 associated with Rockville Centre have plunged from high positions on the church ladder, either resigning or being forced out, falling into the arms of angry families of abuse victims who have taken them to court, hoping to discover justice in a legal system, if not a moral one.

While the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston will not comment on specific cases under investigation, sources say that there is at least one case that may result in criminal charges against Murphy for his handling of these incidents.

Or not. Despite hundreds of cases of assault on children by church leaders, it may well be that those who covered up the rapes and assaults, in reality, committed no actual crime.

“There is no priestly obligation to report,” says Ellen Yaroshefsky, a professor at the Cardozo School of Law in Manhattan who serves on the Professional Responsibility Committee of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. She explains that every state has different statutes when it comes to reporting crimes, and that the statutes are forever in revision.

In some cases the cover-ups enabled additional assaults. In many cases the cover-ups bought the rapists enough time to see the statute of limitations run out, so they could not be prosecuted. In other cases the church paid out settlements to keep victims from seeking redress in the courts. But there was never any particular law in Boston requiring the clergy to inform lay authorities of pedophile assault—or indeed any crime committed by priests. There was no law in place in Massachusetts—until after the scandal broke in 2002—requiring that the church take any particular action, such as defrocking such priests or removing them from contact with children. The law had left the church to its own moral code.

If final absolution comes when all those involved are brought to justice, then there is still work to be done. Across the country, pedophile priests still serve. And the higher-ups who knew what occurred and concealed it still serve.

Murphy's Defense

Murphy has tried to be up-front in press releases about some of what occurred during his time in Boston, and for some Catholics, that has been enough.

“I think he’s tried to be as forthright as he could be with any cases that kind of surfaced just before his time or since,” says Rev. Thomas Gallagher, of the Sacred Heart Church in North Merrick.

But Murphy has also lied. The documents in the Murphy files belie the statements Murphy has made in diocesan press releases and pastoral letters.

Murphy has said in diocesan press releases that his knowledge of what occurred when he worked as vicar general in Boston—from 1995 to 2001—is limited. But Murphy’s handwriting and name are visible on thousands of church documents that have been subpoenaed by investigators and made public. The evidence shows he was directly involved and kept well-informed about alleged pedophile priests. After all, if Murphy weren’t handling these cases, why would his own delegate call them “the Murphy files”?

“I believe it should be clear that I was not involved in assigning priests with allegations of abuse against them to situations where they could be a danger to minors,” Murphy wrote in July 2003, originally for The Long Island Catholic.

But in 1998, Cardinal Law, with Murphy’s full knowledge, as indicated by a memo from Law to him, assigned Rev. Jay Mullin as parochial vicar at St. Ann’s in Wayland, Mass. This was while a memo sat in Mullin’s file alleging he had sodomized a 12-year-old boy in the late 1960s, sometimes making the boy pinch his nipples with pliers. (A handwritten note next to this allegation says “horsed around.”)

“In fact, in the few cases in which I was involved as Vicar General for the Archdiocese of Boston, my efforts were directed at keeping such priests away from minors, either making sure that they were not in pastoral situations or removing them from the priesthood entirely,” he continued in the Long Island Catholic piece.

But in 1995, Murphy received a note from Rev. Redmond Raux, thanking him for “helping with the assignment which has now been made.” While allegations that he had molested a 13-year-old boy in 1987 sat in Raux’s file, Murphy and his delegate, Flatley, had negotiated a job for Raux at Holy Family Hospital.

Murphy’s own words, in a diocesan letter: “I was not involved in assigning priests with allegations of abuse against them to situations where they could be a danger to minors.”

The documents show he lied.

Far from showing any remorse or sympathy for victims and others troubled by the scandal, Murphy and the church have contorted themselves in their efforts to dodge responsibility for their roles in the abuse. Sean Dolan, spokesman for the Rockville Centre Diocese, refused to answer any questions from the Press. “I’m wasting my time,” he told a Press reporter. On Tuesday, Dolan said Murphy was on vacation and would be unavailable for any interviews.

Sometimes, it seems they’ll say anything in the hopes that no one will look too closely. There was a Father William F. Murphy who served as a deputy to Monsignor—or Bishop—William F. Murphy in Boston, and on “more than one occasion,” as Gallagher of Sacred Heart points out, Murphy has said that he has been confused with the other Murphy, that it was the other Murphy who signed documents related to accused priests.

But a careful reading of documents clears up the matter easily. There are times when both Reverend and Bishop wrote memos and received memos, passing on information involving accused priests; oftentimes both of their names are on the same memos. The confusion is one that works to Bishop Murphy’s advantage, but not one that holds up under scrutiny.

The Bishop's Character

A bishop in his vestments appears to be an almost royal figure. His ornamentation and collar detail him with the commanding stature of an Ingres painting, positioning him at a well-heeled distance from the public. Parishioners may glimpse the bishop at services, or in his writings, or in his rare public pronouncements. Beyond that, it is difficult to read the man who has chosen to protect his fellow priests rather than the children in his care.

Bill Gately, 53, met Murphy once at a friend’s 60th birthday party in Boston, in 1998. He recalls a man in shorts and a T-shirt walking straight up to him with his hand outstretched, introducing himself by saying, “Hey. Will Murphy. How you doing?” Gately, who is a survivor of priest abuse and co-coordinator of the New England National Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, (SNAP), thought Murphy was “affable, easily met, easy to be around.” It was a confusing exterior for a man known around Boston, according to Gately, as Law’s “hatchet man.”

“How he presented himself personally was inconsistent with the image of arrogance and detachment that he has presented around the issue of sexual abuse,” says Gately, who is also a mental health counselor.

Laura Ahearn, president of Parents for Megan’s Law, a national child advocacy organization based in Stony Brook, also found Murphy’s character difficult to pin down.

In 2002, she began discussing the possibility of providing services to the Diocese of Rockville Centre, which was roundly under fire for allegations of abuse in Long Island parishes.

At her first meeting with Murphy, in his brown-paneled office, she says she approached the man with tremendous respect: “He was a bishop and he was closer to God than I was, that’s how I felt.”

Over time, she says, her interactions with Murphy became more loaded. In one phone conversation, Ahearn says, Murphy became angry and told her that she could not have “carte blanche” over his parishes.

“All I’m saying is, you need to give these guys management training,” she says she told him. Ahearn recalls that Murphy then said to her, “I’d rather stick with theology.”

“You’re not hearing what I’m saying,” she remembers telling him. “You are leaving children vulnerable if you do not train these guys.”

According to Ahearn, Murphy replied, “Thanks, ciao,” and hung up the phone.

Ahearn says that Murphy lays on his words like paint, creating a layered object that, stroke by deliberate stroke, becomes a picture that obscures the truth.

As they discussed what he did or did not know while he was in Boston about the abuse of minors by priests, Ahearn says, Murphy denied that he had any knowledge of priests sexually abusing children. She says she asked him specifically: Did he ever assign a priest to a parish that had an allegation against him?

“He took a moment, and he paused, and he said, ‘No, never,’” remembers Ahearn. “I took a moment, and I asked it another way. ‘Were you ever aware of a priest who had an allegation against him who was assigned to a parish ministry?’ He said, ‘No.’”

In January 2004, Ahearn took a trip to Boston that resulted in her bringing back to LI copies of nearly 5,000 documents (of approximately 100,000 relating to the Boston diocese). The papers now sit in corrugated boxes on her office floor, divided simply by priest. And from those papers, she knows the bishop lied.

The Legal Limit

While victims are incensed morally that Murphy let this go on, the legal case hinges on a different issue: whether he obstructed government officials from doing their work.

“If he’s lying to the public it’s not a crime,” says Yaroshefsky, the law professor. “If he’s lying to a federal official, it’s a crime.”

Murphy signed a federal document in 1999, an Investigative Request for Employment Data and Supervisor Information, certifying that he knew of no “adverse” information that would prevent Rev. William J. Scanlan’s employment at a Veterans Affairs medical facility in California.

As part of the federal request, Murphy also signed a statement that Scanlan “manifested no behavioral problems in the past that would indicate that he might deal with minors in an inappropriate manner,” even though the priest’s file contained a Sept. 28, 1993 memo that refers to his “possible overinvolvement with boys.”

Yaroshefsky says that the statements by Murphy in these memos may eventually be relevant to a criminal prosecution. “If I’m a prosecutor sitting there looking at all this, you know, they may be pushed to say this is a criminal violation.”

Prosecutors certainly have been looking at the memos. In December 2002, Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly subpoenaed Cardinal Law and at least seven bishops who worked for Law, including Murphy, to formally investigate whether they committed crimes in overseeing accused priests. The July 2003 Massachusetts Grand Jury report from Reilly’s office not only clarified Murphy’s role as an advisor to Law, including on “issues involving clergy sexual abuse of children,” but also says that “Murphy did not report to law enforcement any of the numerous allegations of clergy sexual abuse he reviewed nor did he ever advise the Cardinal to do so.”

“Instead,” the report continues, “he viewed such crimes committed by priests as conduct deserving an internal pastoral response.”

Maybe so. As noted, there was no legal reason the church could not rely on an “internal pastoral response.” But the question remains: Were Murphy’s actions appropriate even as an internal pastoral response?

Bob Sherman, a lead attorney at Greenberg Traurig, a firm that argued on behalf of hundreds of victims in Boston, doesn’t think so.

“While Murphy and the others were not under a legal obligation, it doesn’t absolve them of a moral authority,” Sherman says.

Ahearn says that as she and Murphy discussed what he did or did not know while he was in Boston, she was left with what she calls “one burning question.” As they stood to say goodbye, she asked:

“All these cases passed by your desk. Why didn’t you call the police?”

Ahearn says Murphy answered, “I did not have a legal obligation to.”

They stood about six inches from each other, says Ahearn, as she then asked, “Don’t you think you had a moral obligation to?”

To watch Ahearn recount his response, imagine a bobblehead toy. It was “like a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ all at once,” she says.


From beyond the cloister of the church, it may be difficult to see how so many men could have committed so many abuses and still escape reprisal, or how those who knew could aid and abet their alleged crimes. But to those on the inside, the walls appear just high enough to contain a self-protective, self-serving hierarchy.

“Whoever was archbishop of Boston had a very powerful position,” says Rev. Thomas Doyle, who 20 years ago warned Roman Catholic bishops that a sexual abuse scandal was imminent. Now a drug and alcohol counselor in North Carolina, Doyle is a sexual abuse victims advocate who has also served as an expert witness and consultant on hundreds of clergy sex abuse cases. “I think it’s fair to say that this power would serve them well in the sexual abuse of children.”

He describes how many clerics “are no longer in touch with the real world.” He calls them “13-year-old boys in the bodies of 40-year-old men,” and how they cower beneath the might of the bishops, who rule over priests’ ascent within the church.

“Bishops control everything around them,” Doyle says.

While Doyle puts much of the blame squarely on the pathologies of the priests who committed the abuse, he adds, “The real evil is the cover up and the lying of the bishops, including Murphy.”

It is literally an enclosed world in the church, where limits both constrain and confuse men of the cloth. “It’s safe and it’s rigid and you cannot color outside the line,” says Gately, the SNAP leader and abuse survivor, who no longer believes in Catholicism. “What it provides them is a very safe network in which, if they live by the rules, they will get to heaven.”

Gately offers a strange metaphor to describe the relationship between survivors and the church. “What you have is a 2,000-year-old baby trying to push a 2-year-old elephant,” he says.

The image is confusing: Which is wiser? Stronger? Yet it conveys exactly the dilemma between survivors and the church. The baby (the church) is underdeveloped for its advanced age, and the elephant (those hurt by abuse) is new, huge, and not going anywhere.

“Murphy can say, ‘We can help survivors,’” Gately says, “but there’s nothing they want more than for us to go away.”

Church and Clean-Up

Even while the church made efforts to come clean to the

public as the Boston scandal was breaking, in the end, there was a lot of talk and very little action.

“In a desire to encourage victims who might not desire to enter a criminal process to come forward to us, we did not communicate cases to public authorities,” Cardinal Law wrote to priests of the Boston Archdiocese on April 12, 2002. He went on to say that this had proven inadequate: “Public authorities have the obligation not only to prosecute but also defend the public from harm,” and that from then on, the church would be reporting all credible accusations to the police.

The church has touted its use of VIRTUS training, a program used to “empower organizations and people to better control risk and improve the lives of all those who interact with the church,” according to the VIRTUS website. The training involves hand-selecting pastors from the diocese to be trained as trainers.

But, says Ahearn, this response is not adequate for the situation.

“If they were serious about making major changes to protect children they would bring in outside experts,” she says.

At this point, Ahearn believes she was used, she says, “to keep the pot from exploding.”

“[Murphy] was just looking for me to be another ornament on his Christmas tree, along with the other people he’s collected, in order to make it look like he’s doing something,” Ahearn says.

Doyle goes so far as to say that VIRTUS was “cooked up” by the insurance company to keep the church from being sued.

Amazingly, Still at Work

Somehow, despite all the evidence about his role in the Boston scandal, Murphy was still appointed in June 2001 to the Diocese of Rockville Centre.

But his appointment is not as incomprehensible as it first appears, says David Clohessy, executive director of SNAP. “With his hard-nosed approach and his penchant for secrecy [Murphy] proved to the church hierarchy that he was a loyal team player, and was rewarded for that loyalty,” Clohessy says.

The Diocese of Rockville Centre seems to be standing by its man. Rockville Centre is not following the model of Boston, whose church members eventually forced the resignation of Law in 2002.

The diocese neatly deflected both the Boston grand jury report and a report by the Suffolk County Supreme Court Special Grand Jury (impaneled on May 6, 2002, then extended to February 28, 2003) in a June 2003 statement that reads, “What is more relevant to Long Islanders is Murphy’s leadership and actions on issues involving sexual abuse since his appointment to the Diocese of Rockville Centre in September, 2001.”

What do Long Island parishioners think? Many seem torn between their faith and the facts. Many hold steady to their faith in their own parish priest.

“It’s embarrassing,” says 28-year-old Lindenhurst resident Edward Dunn. “Some of the people I looked up to more than anything were priests. It’s horrible, and I know it’s a minority thing. Most priests are the best leaders that you have in a community. [But] there’s not much I can do about it. I’m not going to stop being Catholic.”

Elizabeth McCaul, who worships at St. Dominic’s in Oyster Bay, has seven children she wants to raise in the faith. But, she says, “It is extraordinarily hard when there is absolutely no honesty going on in the hierarchy of the church.

“It’s ironic,” she adds. “You want to raise your kids to be truthful, good people, and it’s very hard to take your kids to Mass, you know, with people who won’t tell the truth.”

Dan Bartley, co-founder of Voice of the Faithful, a lay organization formed in 2002 in response to the sexual abuse crisis, says parishioners are still unable to get distance between themselves and the men who tarred their faith so enduringly, like Murphy. “Apathy has set in,” he says.

“There seems to be a lot of underlying desire that [Murphy] would go away somehow,” says Pat Zirkel, another Voice of the Faithful co-founder.

Murphy won’t go quietly, though—if he goes at all.

“You’re 100 percent right that some people in the church tried to cover it up,” says Dunn. “They tried to ship priests around so that nobody would notice. It’s not right. It’s not right. If they have evidence that [Murphy] did that, he shouldn’t be running an archdiocese anymore.”

The Bishop and His Pawns

Rev. Paul J. Mahan

Allegations of abuse were made against Mahan in the 1980s. In 1993, Mahan was sent to St. Luke Institute, a private Catholic hospital in Suitland, Md., for a six-month inpatient psychiatric treatment program.

After Mahan was released from the hospital into the care of the archdiocese, according to the Massachusetts grand jury, “the archdiocese knowingly let him spend the summer of 1994 in a completely unsupervised private home…” Three or four minors were often reportedly in the house and, the report says, Mahan would “dress inappropriately in front of the boys; sexual conversation often went beyond boundaries; there was an overt encouragement of sexuality; and there was a legitimate question of whether one of the boys was sleeping in the same room with Father Mahan.”

A therapist had already told the diocese that Mahan’s diagnosis was “disturbing,” that he had “no sexual organization” and was thus “a danger to men, women and children.” Part of the therapist’s assessment was summed up for Bishop Murphy in a memo from Flatley dated July 3, 1995: “Is Paul a risk?” the therapist asked rhetorically in a phone conversation. “YES!”

Rev. James Power

A 1995 lawyer’s letter claims that Power plied a 13-year-old boy with beer, then orally sodomized him in 1980, while in a van during a trip to Acadia National Park in Maine. The letter describes how, parked amid the evergreens, Power climbed into a lower bunk with the boy, then fondled and sodomized him. Two years after receiving the letter, in 1997, the Boston Diocese investigated Power for “sexual misconduct.” Murphy had the diocese cover Power’s legal fees of $2,893.10. The case resulted in a $35 million settlement.

In a June 1997 exchange between Rev. William F. Murphy to Most Rev. (Bishop) William F. Murphy, the bishop made clear that he felt comfortable allowing Power to work unsupervised in a position that may involve contact with children.

In a memo, Rev. Murphy wondered about the “suitability of Fr. James Power acting as Administrator at St. James the Great Parish in Wellesley / Natick…” observing that Father Power “had been investigated by this office for sexual misconduct.”

“The question arises: Is the lack of immediate supervision a cause for concern?” Father Murphy asked.

In barely legible writing, Bishop Murphy scrawled his signature on the same paper: “Fr Murphy, Let him serve.”

Rev. Melvin Surette

Surette was accused by one boy of “testing him sexually” and manually sodomizing him at Alpha Omega, a church-run Littleton, Mass. treatment center for troubled teenage boys. He also allegedly took naked pictures of a boy while on a sailboat. Yet the grand jury found that Murphy “participated in arranging for Father Surette, already having been accused himself of sexually abusing children, to be assistant delegate responsible for arranging suitable job placements for priests found to have engaged in sexual abuse of children.” This follows a sentence in the report that says that during his eight years as second-in-command in Boston, Murphy “supervised the response to many sexual cases,” including that of Rev. Melvin Surette.

And the report continues: “The Archdiocese documents relating to Surette’s assignment do not show any consideration of the propriety of having a man accused of sexually abusing children significantly involved in finding suitable job placements for other alleged abusers.”

A memo from Rev. Brian Flatley, Murphy’s personnel delegate, addressed to “file” says, “After a bit of negotiating between Mel [Surette] and Monsignor [Bishop] Murphy, we agreed that [Surette] would resign and that he would be assigned to a ‘special assignment.’”

“Special assignment” meant dealing with “special cases,” which meant shuffling around accused priests, as the Boston grand jury report makes clear by naming Surette’s new responsibilities. Instead of reporting what he knew to the police, Murphy was trying to give these men jobs.

Rev. John K. Connell

Also in 1995, Rev. John K. Connell was accused of abusing an 11-year-old boy during a two-year period in the 1970s. “At night, Father Connell would go into ____ room and get in bed with him. He would touch and fondle ____, but there was never any penetration,” says a memo in Connell’s church file. Starting at age 17, the boy attempted suicide 20 times.

“At my most recent meeting with Bishop Murphy, he expressed a desire that we bring to resolution some kind of job description for Jack Connell…” wrote Rev. Paul E. Miceli (secretary for ministerial personnel in the Boston Archdiocese) to Rev. Robert P. Beale on May 20, 1997.

Connell became a consultant to the Priest Recovery Program until he retired in 2001.

Rev. Ronald H. Paquin

Accusations against Rev. Ronald H. Paquin were much more recent than most. The Murphy file on Paquin contains 13 allegations that he orally raped children during the 1970s and 1980s while associate pastor at St. John the Baptist Church in Haverhill. Accusations against the priest say that Paquin would ejaculate and then exclaim in front of his victims, “Manna from heaven,” as he sniffed a handkerchief after wiping his semen off the boys. The diocese spent more than $500,000 to settle some of those cases, according to The Boston Globe.

After treatment at St. Luke’s, the Maryland hospital to which Mahan and other pedophile priests were sent, the diocese set Paquin through Surette’s “special cases” reassignment program for abusive pedophile priests. He was allowed to work at a Cambridge hospital—a more restrictive environment, perhaps, although certainly not free of children.

But it was obvious, even to the men who were giving these new assignments, that this was a difficult game: “We are all aware now that we have to let the Administration know when we are placing a priest who has accusations. Would Holy Family Hospital be gun shy about taking [Rev.] Redmond [Raux, another priest accused of sexual abuse]? This could be a problem every time,” wrote Rev. Brian Flatley to Murphy on June 20, 1995.


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