MILWAUKEE – The Archdiocese of Milwaukee responded Wednesday to media reports suggesting that an archdiocesan priest, Fr. James Connell, vice chancellor of the Milwaukee Archdiocese, covered-up sexual abuse by Fr. Lawrence Murphy.

In a written response issued by Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff of the former Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, now working for administrator Bishop William P. Callahan, addressed to priests, parish directors, deacons and distributed via e-mail, he wrote that to “make claims that Father Connell’s role was part of a cover-up is simply false and to report these claims as facts in the media is both irresponsible and damaging to his reputation. We feel obligated to correct and clarify erroneous information.”

An article in the Oct. 13 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) wants the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to remove Fr. Connell, also pastor of St. Clement and Holy Name parishes, Sheboygan, and supervising priest at St. Peter Claver, Sheboygan, from the abuse review board because of his investigation of sexual abuse by the late Murphy. The abuse review board was formed in 2003 by Archbishop Dolan in response to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Dallas Charter, which spells out its procedures for addressing clergy sexual abuse of minors.

The Journal Sentinel reported that a civil fraud case filed in the Milwaukee County Circuit Court on Tuesday, by John Doe 14, an Illinois man who said he was abused in 1971-‘72 as a minor attending what was St. John’s School for the Deaf in St. Francis, was the second filed by a former student where Murphy is said to have molested up to 200 boys from 1950 to 1974.

The article reported that the local advocates for victims of Catholic clergy sex abuse contend that Fr. Connell “investigated one of Wisconsin’s most egregious clergy-offenders in the 1990s and did nothing to warn the deaf community that he served.”

While the Journal Sentinel article stated that the archdiocese said Fr. Connell documented Murphy’s offenses sometime after 1994 in an effort to remove Murphy from the priesthood, victim advocates said “(Fr.) 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 (Fr.) Connell, given his failure to act, belonged on a panel intended to bring transparency to the system of vetting clergy sex abuse cases.”

In his response, Topczewski offered a timeline of when allegations against Murphy were made public and reported to civil authorities and when he was restricted from ministry. He also wrote that the Metropolitan Tribunal of the archdiocese moved forward with penal action against the priest in 1995 to permanently remove him from the priesthood.

Topczewski described Fr. Connell’s role as to compile documentation to be used in Murphy’s penal trial, but he questioned whether it was his role to notify others of the record.

Read Topczewski’s complete statement below:

Dear Father, Parish Director, Deacon,

Tuesday, media reported on allegations by a victim advocacy group about how the archdiocese handled sexual abuse allegations against Father Lawrence Murphy. To report these claims this week as if they are new does not make these claims either new or true.

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee has acknowledged for many years that Murphy had substantiated allegations of sexual abuse against minors. The abuse committed was a betrayal of trust and a violation of everything our Church and the priesthood represent.  Murphy’s name is listed as a known abuser on the archdiocesan Web site and the chronology of the Murphy allegations has also been on the Web site for years.

What was new were allegations about Father James Connell being part of a “cover-up” of this abuse. To make claims that Father Connell’s role was part of a cover-up is simply false and to report these claims as facts in the media is both irresponsible and damaging to his reputation. We feel obligated to correct and clarify erroneous information.

Murphy’s actions were public knowledge and reported to civil authorities as early as 1973; in newspaper articles as early as 1974; and through civil court proceedings as early as 1975. In addition, notification was provided to both the diocese and parish where Murphy lived in Boulder Junction, Wis. Murphy was restricted from ministry in 1993.  Notification about Murphy and outreach to members of the deaf community was extended through direct communications, listening sessions, healing services, and at various meetings in the 1993 and 1994.

In 1995, the Metropolitan Tribunal of the archdiocese moved forward with a penal action against Murphy, to permanently remove him from the priesthood. As Vice Chancellor of the archdiocese, Father Connell’s role was to compile documentation of Murphy’s actions to be used in that penal trial.  Murphy died in 1998. It would not be Father Connell’s responsibility to notify anyone of Murphy’s record and, because of the communications noted above, one cannot claim that notification about Murphy was not communicated to the diocese, to the parish and to the deaf community to whom Murphy ministered.

Certainly, we know the Church has made mistakes in the handling of some sexual abuse cases over time; has admitted those mistakes publicly and often in the past years; has implemented new policies and protocols to ensure those mistakes are not repeated; and has worked diligently toward reaching resolution with victims/survivors.

The archdiocese remains committed to helping victims-survivors of sexual abuse. Such abuse should always be reported. We want anyone who has been victimized to come forward with confidence that they will be heard and helped, and that their abuser will be held accountable.

Lastly, in preparation for this e-mail, I talked with Father Connell. He was on a hospital visit at Children’s Hospital yesterday afternoon when these accusations came to light. He tells me that through his work in the Chancery Office and as a member of the Archdiocesan Review Board, he has come to better understand and appreciate the enormous pain victims/survivors suffer. On his return trip from Milwaukee to Sheboygan, he prayed the rosary for the members of SNAP and for all those who have been harmed by clergy sexual abuse. He asked me to include a request in this email asking that everyone pray for truth, justice, healing and peace.

Please feel free to use this information with your staff and parishioners as you feel best meets the needs of your people.

Sincerely yours,
Jerry Topczewski
Office of the Archbishop (Sede Vacante)

Read former Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan’s “Questions and Answers Regarding the Sexual Abuse of Minors by Clergy.”