National Support Group SNAP Seeks Removal of Sheboygan Priest James Connell from Archidiocese of Milwaukee Abuse Review Board

By Janet Ortegon
Sheboygan Press
October 15, 2009

A national support organization for people who are victims of clergy abuse is asking that a local priest be removed from a diocesan sexual abuse review board because of his involvement in the investigation of a past sex abuse case.

The Rev. James Connell, who in addition to being pastor of St. Clement and Holy Name of Jesus parishes in Sheboygan, serves the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in several capacities, including as a member of the review board.

A staff member at St. Clement referred calls about the review board to the archdiocese on Wednesday, and said Connell is not taking calls from the media.

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, which calls itself SNAP, requested on Tuesday that Connell be removed from the review board because in 1997, when he was re-investigating sexual assault of deaf students by Fr. Lawrence Murphy, Connell failed to forward the results of the investigation to civil authorities.

The auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese is out of state and hasn't responded officially to the request, said Julie Wolf, director of communications for the archdiocese, but she said the allegations against Connell included in SNAP's request are not true.

Peter Isely, director of SNAP's Midwest region, said the organization finds fault with Connell because documents in the case show his investigation turned up evidence of crimes Murphy committed against deaf children at St. John's School of the Deaf, where he was a teacher and president, between the 1950s and 1974.

Murphy left St. John's and relocated to Boulder Junction, in far northern Wisconsin, but continued to be involved with parish activities there in violation of restrictions placed on him by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Isely said.

When Connell's investigation, conducted around 1997, discovered this information, he forwarded it to church authorities instead of civil officials.

"Our point with Father Connell is that he's party to the fraud because he didn't take the information — the information is criminal evidence — he didn't take that criminal evidence and give it to authorities, give it to the police, give it to the district attorney. He didn't take that criminal evidence and notify parishes in Boulder Junction, he didn't notify the deaf community. The biggest worry was that Father Murphy would continue to be involved with the deaf community. That's the basis of our concern. He didn't do anything with the information."

Wolf said Auxiliary Bishop William Callahan will address the request when he returns but said SNAP's claims about Connell are "unfounded."

"The case with Lawrence Murphy is not new," Wolf said. "His actions have been made public and were reported to civil authorities as early as 1973. Allegations about Father Connell being part of a cover-up is false."

Wolf said Connell opened up a new investigation into Murphy's history as part of a tribunal that was moving ahead with penal action against Murphy because he was not following the restrictions that were placed on him.

"During that time, Father Connell's role as vice chancellor was to compile documentation of Murphy's actions, to be used in that trial," Wolf said. "Then Murphy died in 1998 before he could be laicized, or removed (from the priesthood). It would not have been Father Connell's responsibility to do anything more in that investigation."

The archdiocese's Web site lists a chronology of Murphy's life, including when abuse charges were first leveled against him at St. John's and that the information was turned over to the St. Francis Police Department.

"The fact of the matter is abuse by Murphy was public knowledge since early the 1970s," Wolf said.

Isely said although Connell is a well-respected member of the clergy and the archdiocese, his involvement in the Murphy investigation makes him an inappropriate member of the sexual abuse review board, which is charged with investigating allegations of sexual abuse at the direction of the archbishop.

"He was directly involved with one of worst cases of priest pedophilia in the United States — surely they can find somebody who doesn't have that background," Isely said. We just think he shouldn't be on the board. We're not asking for him to be excommunicated. …It seems to me from what I've read and seen, he's one of the stars of the archdiocese and in many regards maybe he should be. But not in this respect."

Isely said he doesn't expect the archdiocese to pull Connell from the board despite SNAP's request, but that he hopes to help bring about changes in the way the church handles allegations of sexual misconduct by priests.

"(It's a) secretive system that puts the concerns of hierarchy and concerns of the management of the organization over the protection of children and the truth about employees of theirs that they have determined have assaulted children," Isely said. "Those days should be gone entirely. Nothing prevented Father Connell or his superiors to notify the community."


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