‘Mistakes were made’ in handling abuse case, says Milwaukee archbishop

MILWAUKEE – Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki of Milwaukee offered apologies to victims of clergy sexual abuse and asked forgiveness from those outraged at how church leaders and civil authorities mishandled the case of a Wisconsin priest-abuser who victimized scores of deaf students in his care decades ago.

“Mistakes were made” in the case of Father Lawrence Murphy, the priest-abuser, said Archbishop Listecki in his homily during the March 30 chrism Mass at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Milwaukee.

“The mistakes were not made in Rome in 1996, 1997 and 1998. The mistakes were made here, in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, in the 1970s, the 1980s and the 1990s, by the church, by civil authorities, by church officials, and by bishops,” Archbishop Listecki said. “And for that, I beg your forgiveness in the name of the church and in the name of this Archdiocese of Milwaukee.”

Father Murphy worked at a school for the deaf in Milwaukee from 1950-74. In the early 1970s, multiple allegations of sexual abuse against the priest were made to civil authorities, who investigated but never brought charges. He was placed on a leave of absence for a while and later returned to pastoral ministry in the Diocese of Superior, where he worked until 1993.

In 1993 a social worker who interviewed Father Murphy, reported that the priest had admitted his acts, had probably molested about 200 boys and felt no remorse. Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland, then head of the Milwaukee Archdiocese, placed restrictions on Father Murphy’s ministry.

A canonical trial that could have led to the laicization of Father Murphy was begun in 1996. It has been widely reported that the trial was halted after the priest appealed to the Vatican, but it ended when the priest died in 1998.

Archbishop Listecki, who was installed as Milwaukee’s archbishop in January, was profuse in his apology.

“As a bishop, a priest, and as a man of faith, I apologize to anyone who has been a victim of clergy sexual abuse,” he said. “This crime, this sin, this horror, should never occur, especially by a priest. Those who committed these crimes and those, including some bishops, who didn’t do everything in their power to stop it, go against everything the church and the priesthood represent. For those actions, I offer my sincere apology.”

He added, “We cannot deny the past, but because of all of it, during these past years we have become a more prudent church. We have taken significant steps to purge this abuse from our church and even from the larger society. We hope and pray our actions have become a model for what to do after decades of what not to do.”

Archbishop Listecki said, “So many people have suffered – first and foremost victims and their families. Because of the actions of the few priests who committed these crimes, all of us continue to suffer today.”

He thanked sexual abuse victims who “pushed and prodded – some say even forced – the church to change.”

“We owe these victims/survivors our deep gratitude and we acknowledge our own actions have not always expressed that gratitude adequately,” Archbishop Listecki said.

He told the pastors, priests, deacons and lay ecclesial ministers gathered for the chrism Mass to “remain vigilant” on matters of sexual abuse in their assignments.

“It is not words, but actions that will demonstrate our resolve,” Archbishop Listecki said. “And, in some ways, regardless of what I say, tonight or any other time, our critics will say it is not enough. But that cannot and will not prevent me from making every possible effort at moving forward toward healing and resolution with those who have been harmed, and, determined, to make sure nothing like this can ever happen again.”

Archbishop Listecki said, “Even though some do not want to hear it or accept it as truth, mistakes were made by law enforcement, medical professionals – even reporters who helped bring initial stories to light and grappled with how to deal with perpetrators. We have all learned so much.”

As for criticism of Pope Benedict XVI for alleged “inaction” on sex abuse cases, Archbishop Listecki said: “His actions in responding to this crisis, swiftly and decisively and his compassionate response to victims/survivors, speak for themselves.

“The Holy Father has been firm in his commitment to combat clergy sexual abuse; root it out of the church; reach out to those who have been harmed; and hold perpetrators accountable. He has been a leader, meeting with victims/survivors and chastising bishops for their lack of judgment and leadership,” he said.

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.