By SUSAN SAULNY and LAURIE GOODSTEIN
BOULDER JUNCTION, Wis. — The modest clapboard cottage projects a sense of simple rural peace, nestled amid tall pines on quiet Trout Lake. The house, in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, had been in the Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy’s family for years, his getaway in the summer months and his sanctuary where he was sent to retire in 1974, at age 48, after victims of sexual abuse demanded he be removed from work at a school for the deaf near Milwaukee.
But Father Murphy’s time around Boulder Junction was not so secluded, according to recent interviews with people who live in the area and Roman Catholic Church documents.
Those interviews and documents suggested that Father Murphy, who is accused of molesting as many as 200 boys at the school near Milwaukee, also used his family’s lakefront cottage as a lure in his sexual advances, bringing youths from the school into his home beginning at least in the early 1960s.
What has recently come to light in fresh documents and interviews is that he was in the company of boys not only from the Milwaukee area but in the Northwoods region. Two in the area have accused Father Murphy of abuse, one at the isolated family cottage and the other, as late as 1978, at a youth detention center near Boulder Junction.
Speaking with a therapist years later, Father Murphy denied having any sexual contact “with any person” after leaving the school for the deaf in 1974.
Julie Wolf, communications director for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, said that Father Murphy was placed on certain restrictions upon leaving Milwaukee that included not having any contact with children and that “he ignored the restrictions.”
Ms. Wolf added, “Over time, they tried to deal with him, but over time they weren’t successful.”
In fact, around Boulder Junction, in high school religious classes and preparation for the sacrament of confirmation, in sleepovers at his cottage and fishing excursions, Father Murphy interacted freely with children until his death in 1998, never having been punished by the church or local criminal authorities in Milwaukee, according to documents and interviews with people in the area.
Donald Marshall, who is 45 and lives in West Allis, Wis., said in an interview last week that he was molested by Father Murphy in 1977 or 1978, when he was 13 or 14, a few years after Father Murphy was sent to live in Boulder Junction.
Mr. Marshall had been sent to the juvenile detention center, the Lincoln Hills School for Boys, for burglaries he said he committed. He said Father Murphy sometimes served at the school as a chaplain, and he met the priest at a dining room table one night. When he got in a fight with some other inmates, Mr. Marshall said, he was sent to a “security cottage” and put in a cell alone, behind a solid steel door with a high window.
Mr. Marshall said that Father Murphy visited him there, that they sat on the bed talking, and that the priest tried to put his hand down the boy’s pants. Mr. Marshall said he resisted, and as soon as Father Murphy left the cell, the teenager told a security officer, who called the superintendent of the center. The superintendent interviewed him twice to make sure he did not change his story. But Mr. Marshall said the superintendent told him that they had had previous complaints about Father Murphy, and that the priest’s superiors had been told.
Another accusation, from a former altar boy at a church in Boulder Junction, surfaced in a letter written to a bishop, Raphael M. Fliss, in the Diocese of Superior, covering the Northwoods region. The accuser, now a teacher, came forward in 2002, at age 52, stating that Father Murphy had sexually abused him at his lake cottage. It is not clear whether Father Murphy was still working in Milwaukee when he met the second accuser, who is believed to have been from the Northwoods.
“I want you to know that Father Murphy molested me many times at his cottage in Boulder Jct since I was a little, naïve, deaf boy,” wrote the man, whose name had been redacted in the document received by The New York Times. It is unclear whether he attended St. John’s School for the Deaf in St. Francis, outside Milwaukee, where Father Murphy had worked.
In a letter, the man also asked for a settlement of $25,000 “so I can forgive you and not be angry when I see the church,” he stated.
A call to Bishop Fliss, now retired, was not returned this week. The Diocese of Superior said it had had no comment to add about the Murphy case.
Years earlier, when Father Murphy was still at St. John’s, he was said to gravitate to boys who were sexually inexperienced and lacking in social skills, according to Kathy Lyn Walter, a social worker and an expert on sexual disorders who was hired by the archdiocese to interview Father Murphy in 1993. She said he offered them what seemed like a beachfront reprieve from their lives in the dormitories, with canoe trips, picnics and barbecues.
“There was a group of boys from which client regularly selected someone to go to his cottage in Boulder Junction to engage in sexual behavior,” Ms. Walter wrote. Her notes refer to Father Murphy’s time of service at the school for the deaf, and were intended to help church leaders decide how to deal with him.
“Sexually oriented to male adolescents,” she wrote in her conclusions, adding at another point, “This client seems to have no sense of the extent of harm caused.”
In the two years before Father Murphy died, the bishops in Milwaukee and Superior tried to have him defrocked but were dissuaded by Vatican officials who had received a letter from Father Murphy asking for leniency. The Vatican said Father Murphy had shown “apparent good conduct” in the 24 years since he had been removed from St. John’s and sent to Boulder Junction.
However, the complaint from Mr. Marshall indicates the abuse continued during that period.
After the episodes that he described with Father Murphy, Mr. Marshall said he never saw the priest again at Lincoln Hills. But Mr. Marshall said that years later, after problems with alcoholism and anger, and after serving eight years in prison for drunken driving, he contacted the Archdiocese of Milwaukee asking for help in the form of therapy, which he said he never received.
On Tuesday, at a Mass, Archbishop Jerome Listecki acknowledged that mistakes were made in the case of Father Murphy. “The mistakes were not made in Rome in 1996, 1997 and 1998,” the archbishop said. “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. And for that, I beg your forgiveness.”
Mr. Marshall filed a lawsuit last year against the archdiocese, according to his lawyers, Jeff Anderson and Mike Finnegan, accusing Father Murphy of sexual abuse.
Victims back in Milwaukee and St. Francis say the police ignored their reports of the priest’s sexual contacts. They also went to the district attorney’s office in Milwaukee. E. Michael McCann, then the district attorney, said last week that his office had not pursued the allegations because they were beyond the state’s statute of limitations.
The victims and their advocates recall it differently, saying that one victim was then a student at the school and was being abused — which would have been well within the statute. Mr. McCann said his office was under such scrutiny in the Murphy case that it would have been impossible for them not to pursue an active case of abuse. But once Father Murphy moved to Boulder Junction, local authorities said they were not made aware of any complaints.
“Our department never conducted any criminal investigations,” said Chief Deputy Joe Fath of the Vilas County Sheriff’s Department. “There were never any allegations of anything occurring in Vilas County at his place of work or residence.”
Father Murphy always lived freely. Far from being a recluse during his time at the lake, he was described by neighbors and friends as a jovial man, although he grew more subdued with age.
“He’d come and get me when he had the deaf boys over,” said Jeff Long, the town chairman of Boulder Junction, who, as a child, spent many carefree summer days at the lake cottage with its bunk beds in the early 1960s. “I had a great time. Father Murphy was just a very wonderful, friendly man. He was very fun to be around.”
Mr. Long, who said he was not abused, added: “Whatever was happening was happening very isolated from the general atmosphere of what was going on. I was completely oblivious to anything that would have been inappropriate at any level.”
Ms. Walter, the social worker, determined that Father Murphy sought boys of a certain profile: medium build with black or blond hair, loyal and in need of affection or attention, sexually ignorant and lacking in social skills.
“It was sex education for them,” Ms. Walter quoted Father Murphy as saying in her notes. “They were confused about sex. There was rampant homosexuality among the older boys. I fixed the problem.”
Ms. Walter stated in her notes that it was very difficult for a very sexually active person to stop being sexual and that her first recommendation was for the Diocese of Superior to open an investigation into Father Murphy’s activities in Boulder Junction.
A spokesman for the diocese declined to comment on whether any investigation in the region was ever begun.
David Schmoller, 52, a plant ecologist living near Boulder Junction, called on Father Murphy several times in the course of his own volunteer work and said he felt a deep sense of anger that the priest was never brought to justice.
“This is a public safety issue to me,” Mr. Schmoller said. “I felt depressed to think that I didn’t know his background and what could have gone wrong. This man was unflagged in our community, and we encountered him. How many more are there?”
Susan Saulny reported from Boulder Junction and Laurie Goodstein from New York.