|DA: Priest Violated Probation
By Tom Morton
January 5, 2009
A Catholic priest who pleaded guilty in 2006 to indecent liberties with a minor in the mid-1970s violated a term of his probation and spent a week in the Natrona County jail in October, an assistant district attorney said last week.
The case of the Rev. John Murray, formerly of St. Anthony's Catholic Church in Casper, also illustrates how the courts can exercise flexibility in sentencing old sex crimes -- including not registering as a sex offender -- and how law enforcement can deal with probation violations.
Murray, contacted at his home in Cheyenne, said he could not comment on the request for the probation revocation, and referred questions to his attorney Mike Krampner, who also declined to comment.
Murray had unapproved contact with a child, Assistant District Attorney Mike Schafer said.
"After being bonded out, we're deciding what to do," Schafer said.
The options range from fully revoking Murray's probation to fully dismissing the petition for probation, he said.
Schafer probably will do something in between, partly because of the circumstances surrounding the case, he said.
Murray abused the girl four times in 1976 and 1977 while he was a minister at St. Anthony's, according to court records.
The victim, now in her mid-40s, reported the abuse to authorities in 2005 after she realized her son was the same age as her at the time of her abuse. She also was experiencing intense anxiety attacks and nightmares of scenes at St. Anthony's Church.
The district attorney brought the indecent liberties charge against Murray, who pleaded guilty in June 2006. The guilty plea was not a conviction.
Natrona County District Judge David Park then sentenced the 72-year-old Murray to five years probation with 30 specific conditions, including not being in the presence of a minor child without approval from his probation agent and sex offender therapist.
On Sept. 30, 2008, Murray had invited a couple to his house, and he thought their children were with the husband while he was giving the wife a tour of his house.
His probation agent was driving by his house at the time, saw children in the yard, rang the doorbell and noticed one of the children had come inside during Murray's tour.
The next day, Murray wrote to the agent to explain and apologize.
"I know myself. Morally I am a much different person than I was in 1977 when I offended against two teen-aged girls," Murray wrote.
"I also know that I would not touch another minor, regardless of age, with a ten foot pole except to shake hands with them. None of this excuses me from being with any minor unless my chaperone is present.
"I am sincerely sorry for what I did," Murray wrote.
On Oct. 16, Murray was arrested in Cheyenne and transported to the Natrona County Detention Center, and released a week later on a $1,500 bond, according to court records.
"I think he realizes the seriousness of that (probation violation)," Schafer said.
Coincidentally in October, the victim filed a civil lawsuit in Natrona County District Court against Murray and the Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne for covering up the abuse.
As of Friday, the diocese had not filed an answer to the victim's complaint.
Schafer said Murray apparently had a serious lapse of judgment, which warranted his arrest.
But the circumstances of the case complicate what should be done next, Schafer said.
Abusing a child is serious, but the case was old as was Murray, he said.
Murray expressed contrition at his 2006 sentencing for his actions, as he did in the letter he wrote to the probation agent.
After investigating Murray's past, the District Attorney's Office concluded he'd never been convicted of so much as a misdemeanor, Schafer added.
That allowed the district attorney, Murray's defense attorney and the judge to employ a Wyoming law for rare cases such as this, he said.
Wyoming Statute 7-13-301 allows a person not previously convicted of any felony, with major exceptions such as murder, to plead guilty to the charge and ask the court to put off any other proceedings so it doesn't enter a judgment of guilt or conviction, Schafer said. "Sometimes it's appropriate for first-time offenders."
The court can then impose probation for up to five years, he said.
Murray was allowed to do that, Schafer said. "The minute he pleaded guilty, he wasn't convicted."
The district attorney's office doesn't regard 7-13-301 lightly, he said. "We don't give this out even if the person has a misdemeanor."
As such, probation violations can result in consequences up to the court to judge the person guilty of the original charge and impose an appropriate sentence, according to the law.
One of those consequences for Murray could be a requirement to register as a sex offender. He is not registered now, according to the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation's Sex Offender Registry Web site wysors.dci.wyo.gov/sor/SOR.
Schafer said he probably will not ask for a full revocation, which could lead to the harshest consequences.
Instead, he'll probably ask the court to dismiss the request for the probation revocation but not erase it from Murray's record in case there's another violation, he said.
Reach Tom Morton at (307) 266-592, or at Tom.Morton@trib.com.
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