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Church in Crisis

Records reveal bishops’s role in Boston scandal


In 1995, Boston’s vicar general, Auxiliary Bishop William Murphy, appointed a priest accused of sexual abuse of minors to set up a job bank for other accused priests, according to archdiocesan records.

From 1993 to 2001 Murphy, now bishop of the Rockville Centre, N.Y., diocese, ranked second in Boston to former Archbishop Bernard Law.

According to Newsday, a Long Island paper that examined some 40,000 pages of the church documents made available by Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Constance Sweeney in the last year, Murphy played a role in the supervision of about a third of all cases of abuse by Boston priests. His supervision included the case of now defrocked priest John Geoghan, whose history of abusing children has become among the most notorious nationwide, and of Fr. Melvin Surette, who established the job bank to find work for accused priests removed from parishes.

During his tenure as vicar general, Murphy was involved in the reassigning of priests to new parishes and, in some cases, to new dioceses, where the accusations against the priests were not known. Murphy had easy access to church records, and saw to the needs of many accused priests, providing them housing and money to pay lawyers’ fees.

Murphy gave Surette $14,000 to establish the job bank not long after Surette himself was accused of sexually abusing a 16-year-old boy. Surette’s accuser eventually settled a civil suit with the archdiocese for $50,000.

Among the accused priests who Surette successfully placed through his job bank was Fr. Ronald Paquin, who in 1998 was assigned to ministry at a hospital in Cambridge. At that time, Paquin had already been accused of at least 18 counts of sexual abuse. Paquin is now serving a 12-year prison sentence for oral rape of a child.

Newsday said the job bank project not long after its founding was criticized by Fr. Richard Lennon, who was Murphy’s assistant in 1995. In 2001 Lennon became a Boston auxiliary bishop and in December 2002 was chosen temporary head of the archdiocese as apostolic administrator following Law’s Dec. 13 resignation (NCR, Dec. 27).

In a memo, Lennon called into question Murphy’s handling of Surette, “lest precedents set lead to similar requests or to a lowering of morale, as some are treated differently than others.”

Newsday characterized Murphy’s correspondence with Geoghan in the mid-’90s as deferential. It notes that for two years Murphy tried to convince Geoghan, accused of abusing over 100 minors, to resign from an archdiocesan administrative position.

“Jack, please know that I always have great affection and concern for you personally,” Murphy wrote in one 1995 letter to Geoghan in which he suggested the priest resign. Geoghan was defrocked in 1998 and imprisoned in January 2002 for abuse of a minor (NCR, Feb. 1).

On Feb. 12, Murphy traveled to Massachusetts to testify before a grand jury about his supervision of accused Boston priests. Law, who resigned following intense criticism for his mishandling of abusive priests, would testify before the grand jury two weeks later.

Convened by Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas Reilly, the grand jury is investigating whether or not Boston church leaders can be prosecuted as accessories to sexual abuse of minors for allowing abusive priests easy access to children.

Murphy said after his testimony that he had answered all questions “honestly and completely,” and refused to answer questions from media.

On Feb. 14, Murphy responded to a grand jury report that criticized the manner in which sexually abusive priests in the Rockville Centre diocese were handled. Murphy took over the diocese in 2001 (NCR, Feb. 21). The report, which documented abuse by priests primarily in the 1970s and 1980s when Rockville Centre was headed by Bishop John McGann, concluded, “The history of the diocese of Rockville Centre demonstrates that as an institution they are incapable of properly handling issues relating to the sexual abuse of children by priests.”

In a six-page response published in The Long Island Catholic, Murphy’s diocesan paper, he said, “I can only repeat what I have tried to say throughout the last year, that I am deeply sorry for [the diocese’s past failures]. I ask forgiveness from every person affected by this horrible scandal.”

In the written response, the bishop also refuted charges that his conversion of a convent into his personal residence at the cost of $5 million was inappropriate (NCR, Oct. 25). “Since my arrival here I have tried to work tirelessly for the good of the diocese,” he wrote. “Yet my efforts to date have not removed opinions about my character. I know my many defects. Greed and sumptuous lifestyle are not among them.”

Gill Donovan is a staff writer for NCR. His e-mail address is gdonovan@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, March 7, 2003