Former deaf-school student sues archdiocese

Suit claims priest there molested him in 1970s

A civil lawsuit filed Thursday against the Milwaukee Archdiocese is the first by a former student of St. John’s School for the Deaf in St. Francis, where the late Father Lawrence Murphy is believed to have molested as many as 200 boys from 1950 to 1974.

The lawsuit, filed in Milwaukee County Circuit Court by Dean Weissmuller, 50, of Phoenix, is the 11th civil fraud case pending against the archdiocese alleging sexual abuse by priests.

Documents filed as part of the lawsuit suggest that the archdiocese knew of allegations against Murphy as early as the 1950s and worked to protect his reputation for decades after.

They include a letter from a Chicago priest who said he met with then-Archbishop Albert G. Meyer about the allegations in the 1950s, and another by now-retired Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland saying a private funeral was necessary for Murphy to “to protect his good name.”

“What this shows is an institutional, deliberate policy of fraud that’s existed over the last five decades,” Peter Isely of the Midwest chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests said in response to the lawsuit.

“This is not a problem of individual priests or bishops, but a fraudulent system constructed around sexual crimes against children,” he said.

The archdiocese issued a statement in response to the lawsuit saying it has long acknowledged the abuse by Murphy, calling it a “violation of everything our Church and the priesthood represents,” and apologizing to victims.

Weissmuller’s lawsuit alleges he was molested by Murphy and dorm supervisor Thomas Tannehill between 1970 and 1972 while a student at the residential school for the deaf. It maintains the archdiocese knew Murphy and Tannehill had previously abused students, deceived families about it, and allowed the men unsupervised and unrestricted access to vulnerable students in spite of it.

Murphy died in 1998, Tannehill in 2007. Neither man was charged criminally in Wisconsin, though a database maintained by the Web site says Tannehill was later arrested on accusations of abuse in Indiana.

Milwaukee Archdiocese documents at the site say Tannehill, a former student at the school, groomed victims for Murphy.

A social worker who evaluated Murphy for the archdiocese in 1993 estimated that he sexually assaulted as many as 200 boys during his tenure at St. John’s. He was placed on the archdiocese’s list of priests with substantiated claims of sexual abuse in 2004.

Weakland, a central figure in the lawsuits, outraged victims this spring when he claimed in his 2009 memoir that he and church leaders did not understand early on the “criminal nature” of child sex abuse or the long-term effect on victims.

Weissmuller’s is the second of the civil fraud lawsuits to allege abuse by Murphy. Last year, Donald Marshall of West Allis alleged he was sexually assaulted by Murphy in the late 1970s at Lincoln Hills School in Irma, where Murphy worked after retiring from St. John’s in 1974.

Murphy, well-known in the deaf community, was fluent in American Sign Language and a tireless fund-raiser during his time at St. John’s.

In 1974, several former students went to authorities alleging abuse, but Murphy denied it and the investigation was dropped. No charges were filed because the men were adults and the statute of limitations had expired.

Victims later met with then-Archbishop William Cousins. Murphy and others were present. Cousins acknowledged that the church had been aware of the problem for years but that officials felt Murphy was too important to the school to lose.

Murphy resigned after being questioned by a reporter about the allegations. He was allowed to retire and moved to Boulder Junction, where he assisted in two area parishes until 1994. Church disciplinary proceedings were under way when he died.

Wisconsin law bars most lawsuits regarding older claims of sexual assault. But the state Supreme Court ruled last year that the church can be sued for fraud if victims show it was aware of misconduct and did not warn others.

The Milwaukee Archdiocese has said it could be bankrupted by a judgment in the lawsuits after a 2008 ruling that it could not tap its insurance policies to cover intentional fraud.