A Window for Accountability

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
March 27, 2006

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

Sex offenders have gotten a lot of attention from state legislators this year. But there is seemingly a double standard in favor of clergy who have been sexual abusers.

The Legislature has been abuzz about a minimum 25-year term for those who target children and about bills that would limit the placement of violent sex offenders in Milwaukee County. But far less enthusiasm has accompanied a bill that would create a one-year window in which victims of clergy sexual abuse could bring civil lawsuits, regardless of when the abuse occurred and statutes of limitation.

That must change. Legislators need to read articles in the Journal Sentinel by Mary Zahn on Sunday and Monday about the pain and suffering endured by the victims of one priest at St. John's School for the Deaf in St. Francis. Now grown men, some are coming forward for compensation and closure, still suffering the lingering effects of abuse at the hands of Father Lawrence Murphy, a longtime and well-respected fixture at the school.

Murphy died in 1998, so he is immune from earthly accountability. The concern, however, is for the other Murphys in Wisconsin who could still be held accountable with this legislation.

When Murphy's abuse was revealed, the Milwaukee Catholic Archdiocese allowed Murphy to give up his directorship of the school. He was relieved of duties that gave him contact with children and was reassigned to other school duties. He was shielded from criminal prosecution because of the statute of limitations.

He resigned shortly after for "health reasons" and was allowed to retire to a home in Boulder Junction. But, according to Zahn's articles, he assisted two parishes there until 1994, violating restrictions placed on him. Even after he was warned, he apparently continued to violate these restrictions. Former Archbishop Rembert Weakland began disciplinary proceedings against the priest in 1996, but Murphy died before the process was completed.

So how many other Murphys are there, known only to the church? The archdiocese declined to release records regarding Murphy to the newspaper, citing victim confidentiality. It would have more difficulty shielding these documents in the event of civil suits.

Wisconsin is unique in that its Supreme Court has offered some protection for the Catholic Church on this issue. The bill in question, authored by Sen. Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee) would give victims this one-year window to seek civil redress, anyway.

The issue has always been accountability. Parishioners and the public generally deserve to know what the church knows about abusive priests - and when it knew it.





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