Priest Who Resigned Amid Abuse Claims Found a New Life
By Mary Zahn and Tom Heinen
Journal Sentinel Online
April 1, 2002
A Milwaukee priest accused of sexually abusing deaf children more than two decades ago moved to the Rhinelander area and was allowed to teach Sunday school and preside at Masses for the deaf for about 20 years at three Northern Wisconsin parishes.
Father Lawrence C. Murphy resigned as director of St. John's School for the Deaf in 1974 after a small group of former students - some of whom claimed to have been abused by Murphy - sought his removal. The school was closed in the 1980s because of rising costs.
Murphy, who died in 1998, was not quite 50 at the time of his forced resignation. He was quoted in a 1982 newspaper article as saying that he retired because of "a health problem" and moved to the North Woods for peace and quiet.
He was informally allowed to assist at St. Anne's parish in Boulder Junction and two other area parishes from about 1975 until 1994. The two pastors who served at St. Anne's during those years told the Journal Sentinel that the Superior Diocese never warned them about Murphy.
"I knew Father Murphy moved from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, and when I came here at the end of 1979, I knew he was here," said Superior Diocese Bishop Raphael Fliss. He denied knowing the specific allegations against Murphy.
"Something was wrong, and he was relieved from Milwaukee and allowed to work here in the Diocese of Superior," Fliss said. "I inherited him here doing good work. The pastor with whom he worked was with him all the time, and I heard nothing wrong."
Milwaukee archdiocesan spokesman Jerry Topczewski said that then-Archbishop William E. Cousins placed restrictions on Murphy's role as a priest and communicated that to then-Bishop George A. Hammes of Superior when Murphy moved into that diocese after leaving St. John's.
Records of those restrictions could not be found, Topczewski said.
Cousins came to the defense of Murphy in a 1975 lawsuit filed by a former St. John's student and his father, saying that Murphy had "sacrificed himself for the school" by resigning after some "harassments and threats."
In a sworn deposition in that case, Cousins was asked whether he had interviewed the deaf students as part of his investigation into the molestation allegations.
"Students are deaf," Cousins testified. "In most cases their testimony could not be accepted."
While no criminal charges were filed, William Gardner, the former deputy district attorney who reviewed the case in 1974, said in a recent interview that he believed Murphy had molested the children.
He said he would have charged Murphy with a felony, but that the statute of limitations for sexual abuse at the time was six years and the victims all were adults when they came forward.
He said he did not remember how many of Murphy's former students made the allegations.
"I decided that the representations being made to me were true," Gardner said. "I believed them. It was a statute of limitations problem. It would have been a felony charge."
One of Murphy's accusers filed a civil lawsuit that sought information from the archdiocese regarding "specific incidents alleged to have occurred on a continual basis from September 1964 through May of 1974." The Milwaukee Archdiocese settled the case prior to trial in 1976.
The plaintiff's attorney, James Collis, said in a recent interview that settlement terms prohibited him from revealing the details of the compensation given to the victim.
"There were allegations of sexual abuse against Murphy," he said. "I believed my client."
Though Murphy moved into the Superior Diocese to live with a relative, he remained a Milwaukee archdiocesan priest and received pension checks from Milwaukee.
Topczewski said Weakland prohibited Murphy from any contact with the deaf community but that records indicating whether that was formally communicated to the Superior Diocese could not be found.
Father James Bartelme, a former St. Anne's pastor, said he let Murphy perform a baptism shortly after being appointed pastor there about 1994. Bartelme said Milwaukee Auxiliary Bishop Richard J. Sklba learned of that and warned him in a letter not to let Murphy function as a priest. Bartelme said he checked with officials in the Superior Diocese, who confirmed the restrictions on Murphy.
When Weakland learned in 1996 that Murphy was still violating the restrictions, he began disciplinary action that could have brought dismissal from the priesthood. The process was pending when Murphy died.
"It was a statute of limitations problem. It would have been a felony charge."
- William Gardner, former deputy district attorney who reviewed the case in 1974
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