Despite Outrage, Little Progress in Church Scandal

By Robin Washington
Duluth News Tribune
January 2, 2011

Over the past week, the News Tribune’s “Whatever Happened To?” series has updated some of the newspaper’s most significant stories of 2010.

The follow-up to last year’s articles about the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal can be answered in two words: Not much.

That’s despite the fact one of those articles — “Pope linked to cover-up in Superior Diocese priest sex abuse case,” appearing March 25 in the News Tribune, with a similar version in the New York Times — subsequently ran in nearly every paper in the world.

The immediate response was outrage. The article revealed that the Vatican had direct knowledge of an attempt to cover up the molestation of as many as 200 deaf boys by the Rev. Lawrence Murphy, a Milwaukee Archdiocese priest later assigned to the Diocese of Superior. It also documented that now-Pope Benedict XVI, or his immediate subordinate, invoked the “sacramental seal of the confessional” to stonewall efforts to expose the now-deceased priest.

The Vatican responded to the story by calling the case “tragic,” yet denied a written assertion by former Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland that Rome had told him to “keep this as quiet as possible” and not report the abuse to authorities. In a later story, the News Tribune found Murphy may have continued molesting children in the Superior Diocese after leaving the Miwaukee church.

Beyond the outrage and blame and apologies, however, little tangible resulted from the stories, with Murphy long dead and the pope not accountable to victims’ groups demanding his ouster.

In another Superior Diocese case, it was the church that took the step of proactively reporting possible abuse.

The April 14 article, “Retired Superior priest suspended over sexual abuse allegations,” and subsequent stories detailed the diocese’s effort to inform Douglas County District Attorney Dan Blank’s office of possible sexual misconduct involving the Rev. Robert Urban. The church suspended the priest from ministry and turned over its information to Blank’s office.

Yet Blank said he was not aware of the report, which he characterized as “sketchy information,” until days after it was received by his office.

The outrage this time came from the diocese.

“On March 30, the district attorney’s office was contacted, inquiring of them if an allegation of any sexual misconduct had come forward to their office in regard to Fr. Bob Urban. The district attorney’s office said that they would check into this and get back to us, which they never did,” diocesan spokesman Richard Lyons wrote in an April 16 letter to the editor of the News Tribune.

“On April 1 … our diocesan attorney, Ken Knudson, called the district attorney’s office for a second time. … On April 14, we contacted the district attorney’s office for the third time as our attorney still had not received any response from them.”

To date, Urban — who a subsequent story revealed had penned dozens of lurid letters detailing his sexual romps throughout the diocese, even while sharing living quarters with a seemingly unaware then-Bishop Raphael Fliss — remains on suspension and uncharged with any crime.

Superior Police Capt. Chad LaLor said last week that two to three interviews still need to be conducted and declined to comment further.

A third Superior Diocese priest abuse story stretched to Kansas City, Mo., where former priest Tom Ericksen now lives. In the June 30 News Tribune article, “Former Superior Diocese priest accused of rape,” Paul Eck of Winter, Wis., and his nephew James Eck claimed abuse by Ericksen, who responded to an Associated Press reporter by saying he “just fondled (them) and stuff like that.”

The Ecks were seeking criminal charges against Ericksen. Though the alleged crimes are nearly 20 years old, he still could be prosecuted if Wisconsin uses a “tolling” provision of the law that suspends the statute of limitations on crimes if a defendant moves out of state. In July, the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the conviction of a Jesuit priest tried under the tolling provision, possibly

paving the way for a similar prosecution against Ericksen.

A new Sawyer County sheriff elected in November said he knew nothing about the case but would discuss it after taking office.

Internationally, there has been some change. In recent statements, the pope no longer dismisses the scandal as particular to America, with massive cases in Ireland, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands clearly defining it as a worldwide church problem.

And while Vatican officials in March denounced criticism of the pope over priest abuse issues, by December the pontiff himself acknowledged the scandal had reached a “degree we could not have imagined,” adding, “We must ask ourselves what we can do to repair as much as possible the injustice that has occurred.”

One obvious action, which could begin to bring closure to the Superior Diocese cases and others: Call the authorities, and press them to act on it.

Robin Washington is editor of the News Tribune. He may be reached at


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