Victims of Murphy’s law
Paul Byrnes March 16, 2013
Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I am old enough to remember those words as part of the Latin Mass. I learnt them growing up in the Catholic Church in Australia. We spoke them to ask forgiveness for our sins. ”Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault …”
As I was learning them, the Vatican was receiving the first reports of the extent of one priest’s sexual abuse of deaf children at St John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Father Lawrence Murphy, ordained in 1950, was a master of American Sign Language, a charismatic personality and a great fund-raiser. He may also have abused more than 200 deaf children in the three decades in which he was allowed to remain at St John’s, even after his activities were reported to the Vatican.
Father Murphy took a holiday in 1958. Father David Walsh came to the school. Some of the boys told him what Father Murphy was doing. Father Walsh reported the allegations to Archbishop Meyer of Milwaukee and to the Vatican’s apostolic delegate in Washington, DC. Walsh never came back. In 1963, Father Murphy was promoted to head of the school.
This setting gives extra meaning to the title of Silence in the House of God: Mea Maxima Culpa. Many of these boys arrived at St John’s aged just four, from families in which they could not easily communicate. Many hearing parents never learnt to sign.
When the abuse started, Murphy would interpret for the children when they spoke to their parents.
Interviewed against a black background, victim Terry Kohut, now a teacher in his 60s, signs with expressive gestures.
”I was afraid to tell my mother because I didn’t think she would believe me,” he says. ”She would say a priest would never do something like that to children. I kept it a secret.” On that word, he clenches his fists in front of his mouth, signing ”secret”.
These interviews, with four of the children Lawrence Murphy abused, offer a story of unimaginable sadness. Gradually, their testimony becomes heroic. In 1973, Bob Bolger wrote a letter to Archbishop William Cousins of Milwaukee about Murphy. Later that year, he and two fellow former pupils, Arthur Budzinski and Gary Smith, went to the police. The police did not file charges, so these angry young men made a flyer with Lawrence Murphy’s face and the words ”Most Wanted”. They passed it out at church.
Murphy was finally removed as director of St John’s a year later after a staff member threatened to go to the parents. Murphy was allowed to retire to a family home in another diocese, where he continued to abuse other children. He died in 1998, still a Catholic priest. He is buried in a Catholic cemetery in his vestments. A canonical trial, begun in 1997 by the new archbishop of Milwaukee, was abandoned in 1998 just before Murphy died.
Alex Gibney examines several other cases in this superb documentary. The director talks to high-profile former priests, who criticise the church’s response to the tsunami of sexual-abuse cases in the US. Gibney then takes the allegations to Rome. For 25 years, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger ran the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly known as ”the Inquisition”. Many of these cases went across his desk. After 2001, all cases concerning a minor went to him. Most of them were dealt with in secret. Even when he wanted to investigate, Ratzinger was sometimes blocked by Pope John Paul II, a man now on the way to sainthood.
Gibney exposes the same worrying trends that we’ve seen here – disbelief, followed by leniency towards the abuser and scant concern for the victim.
The film left me sick to my stomach and speechless with anger. I left the church long ago. If I had still been part of it, this film would have made me leave. As the cardinals gathered this week to choose a new pope, I wondered how many would choose to watch it?