ST. FRANCIS, Wis. - Steven Geier says that four times in the mid-1960s, the Rev. Lawrence Murphy coaxed the then-14-year-old student into a closet at St. John’s School for the Deaf just outside Milwaukee and molested him, using God to justify his actions.
Geier said when he told Murphy what was happening was wrong, the priest replied, “Oh, yes. God sent me. This is confession.”
Geier, now 59 and living in Madison, was one of about 200 deaf boys at the school who say they were molested by the late priest decades ago in a case now creating a scandal for the Vatican and threatening to ensnare Pope Benedict XVI.
“Father Murphy put everything into the context of God,” Geier said through a sign-language interpreter Thursday. “I felt like I was really brainwashed.”
Some allegations became public years ago. But they received renewed attention this week after documents obtained by The New York Times showed Murphy was spared a defrocking in the mid-1990s because he was protected by the Vatican office led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now the pope.
The Vatican on Thursday strongly defended its decision not to defrock Murphy and denounced what it called a campaign to smear the pope and his aides.
In the Milwaukee-area case, Murphy was accused of molesting boys in the confessional, in dormitories, in closets and during field trips while working at the school for the deaf from the 1950s through 1974. Murphy died in 1998 at age 72.
Geier shook his fist in anger as he talked to The Associated Press about Murphy.
“I can’t believe [the pope] can be so stupid,” Geier said.
“He is supposed to be doing God’s work and yet abusing children is in direct conflict with that. . . . Where is God’s punishment for Father Murphy abusing all those boys? Is that kind of behavior acceptable to God?”
Arthur Budzinski, 61, said Murphy began abusing him in the early 1960s when, at the age of 12, he asked Murphy to hear his confession. Instead, Budzinski said, the priest took him into a closet under the stairs and sexually assaulted him. There were two other assaults in Murphy’s bedroom and Budzinski’s bed in his dormitory room, he said.
“It seemed like my father would be walking into a trap every time,” said Gigi Budzinski, his 26-year-old daughter who interpreted his sign language.
Church and Vatican documents showed that in the mid-1990s, two Wisconsin bishops urged the Vatican office led by Ratzinger to let them hold a church trial against Murphy.
However, Ratzinger’s deputy at the time decided the alleged molestation occurred too long ago and said Murphy — then ailing and elderly — should instead repent and be restricted from celebrating Mass outside of his diocese, according to the documents.
Murphy’s alleged victims also included at least one teen in a juvenile detention center in the 1970s.
Donald Marshall, now 45, said Murphy visited him several times a week at the center, where he was sent at age 13 for burglary.
Marshall said the abused happened when the priest visited the boy while he was isolated in a cell after a fight.
“He was sitting on my bed, reading the Bible to me, and he put his hand on my knee,” Marshall said. “He leaned over and started kissing me. That’s when he tried to put his hand down my pants.”
The Associated Press does not normally identify victims of sex crimes, but Budzinski, Geier and Marshall allowed their names to be used.
One of the documents, written by the Rev. Thomas Brundage of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and dated October 1997, said some of Murphy’s assaults began in the confessional, where he began by asking the boys about their being circumcised. Brundage said at least 100 boys were involved.
“Odds are that this situation may very well be the most horrendous, number-wise, and especially because these are physically challenged, vulnerable people,” Brundage wrote.
The archdiocese entered mediation in 2004 with a number of people who claimed to have been victimized by priests. The archdiocese has paid compensation to Murphy’s victims, but spokeswoman Julie Wolf would not say how much. Through mid-2009, the archdiocese said, it paid out $28 million to settle allegations of clergy sexual abuse.
Budzinski said that when he was 26, he and two others victimized by Murphy went to police. E. Michael McCann, then the Milwaukee County district attorney, said his office couldn’t file charges because the six-year statute of limitations had run out.
The Vatican issued a strong defense of its handling of the case.
The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano said there was no cover-up and denounced what it said was a “clear and despicable intention” to strike at Benedict “at any cost.”
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, issued a statement noting that the Murphy case did not reach the Vatican until 1996 — some 20 years after Milwaukee church authorities first learned of the allegations. Lombardi said the absence of more recent allegations was a factor in the decision not to defrock Murphy.