|Group Seeks Priest's Removal from Abuse Review Board
By Annysa Johnson
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
October 13, 2009
SNAP claims he didn't warn deaf community of incidents at school
Local advocates for victims of Catholic clergy sex abuse are calling on the Milwaukee Archdiocese to remove a high-ranking priest from its abuse review board, contending that he investigated one of Wisconsin's most egregious clergy-offenders in the 1990s and did nothing to warn the deaf community that he served.
The investigation by Vice Chancellor James Connell is cited in a 1997 document released by plaintiffs in a civil fraud case filed Tuesday in Milwaukee County Circuit Court - the 14th lawsuit filed against the archdiocese for its handling of clergy sex abuse allegations.
The lawsuit, by an Illinois man identified only as John Doe 14, is the second by a former student at what was St. John's School for the Deaf in St. Francis, where the late Father Lawrence Murphy is believed to have molested as many as 200 boys between 1950 and 1974. The plaintiff said he was abused in 1971-'72, when he was a minor.
According to the archdiocese, Connell documented Murphy's offenses - including preying on deaf children in the confessional - sometime after 1994 as part of an effort to permanently remove Murphy from the priesthood.
But victim advocates say Connell and the archdiocese failed to warn members of the deaf community of Murphy's history, even as Murphy continued to violate church restrictions on interacting with them. And victims questioned whether Connell, given his failure to act, belonged on a panel intended to bring transparency to the system of vetting clergy sex abuse cases.
Connell's failure to make his findings public made him party to the alleged fraud that marked the archdiocese's handling of clergy sex abuse cases, said Peter Isely, Midwest director for SNAP, or Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.
"They could have notified parishes, the community where he worked. That's the reason these are fraud cases - the concealing," Isely said.
Connell did not return a telephone call seeking comment Tuesday, but fellow members of the diocesan review board described him as thorough, thoughtful and balanced in his analysis of abuse cases.
Former Wisconsin lawmaker and lieutenant governor Margaret Farrow, who chairs the review board, questioned whether it was Connell's responsibility to make the allegations against Murphy public.
"I don't know whose responsibility it was, but I can't imagine Father Connell not carrying out whatever duties he had," she said.
Then-Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan formed the review board in 2003 in response to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Dallas Charter, which spells out its procedures for addressing clergy sex abuse of minors.
Since then, it has reviewed two dozen cases brought to it by the archdiocese, according to one member. And all but one ended with the priest being removed from ministry because the allegations were found to be credible.
The Rev. Donald Hands, an Episcopal priest who sits on the board, said Connell voted to remove each of those priests.
"He's always been firm in support of the recommendations," Hands said. "He's always been, 'The children come first, and the guy should go.'?"
Murphy died in 1998, so his case was never submitted to the review board.
Murphy, well-known in the deaf community, was fluent in American Sign Language and a tireless fund-raiser during his time at St. John's.
In 1974, several former students went to authorities alleging abuse, but Murphy denied it and the investigation was dropped. No charges were filed because the men were adults and the statute of limitations had expired.
Victims later met with then-Archbishop William Cousins. Murphy and others were present. Cousins acknowledged that the church had been aware of the problem for years but that officials felt Murphy was too important to the school to lose.
Murphy resigned after being questioned by a reporter about the allegations. He was allowed to retire and moved to Boulder Junction, where he assisted in two area parishes until 1994. He continued to interact with the deaf community, in violation of the archdiocese's orders, as late as 1998, according to records. Church disciplinary proceedings were under way when he died.
Wisconsin law bars most lawsuits regarding older claims of sexual assault. But the state Supreme Court ruled last year that the church can be sued for fraud if victims show it was aware of misconduct and did not warn others.
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