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03.26.10

A Shocking Priest Abuse Tale

At the age of 13, Dean Weismuller was one of the 200 deaf boys who faced unspeakable abuse by Father Murphy in Wisconsin. He tells Dirk Johnson what happened.

Father Lawrence Murphy was accused of molesting 200 boys at a Wisconsin school for the deaf. Dean Weismuller is one of them. He talked to Dirk Johnson about what happened, and how he copes.

The 13-year-old deaf boy, Dean Weismuller, stood in the office of the principal, Father Lawrence Murphy, too frightened and confused to ask why he had been ordered by the priest to take off his clothes.

“He forced me to get naked,” said Weismuller, now 51. "He made me play with it. And he whipped me."

After it was done, the priest made the Sign of the Cross and recited a blessing of forgiveness for the student—as if it was the child who was guilty of sin.

“He forced me to get naked,” said Weismuller, now 51. “He made me play with it. And he whipped me.”

Weismuller would put his clothes back on—white shirt, tie, green pants and black shoes—and hurry back to his dorm in a state of shock and shame.

For a quarter century, Weismuller has lived with the shame in silence. Now he is speaking out. He is one of five former students of Father Murphy's suing the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to disclose what it knew about widespread abuse at the school, and to account for its behavior. The case has raised questions about the actions of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, who in 1996 was alerted to the scandal, according to The New York Times, but along with other top Vatican officials took no steps to defrock Murphy.

Father Murphy, the popular principal at St. John's School for the Deaf in Wisconsin from 1950 to 1974, has been accused of molesting more than 200 boys. Murphy died in 2008.

"This is one of the most horrendous cases," said Mike Finnegan, a lawyer for five men who have filed suit against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee for the abuse. "And Father Murphy was one of the most prolific child molesters."

Not long after Father Murphy first abused him, Weismuller said he went home for the weekend to his parents’ home in the Chicago suburbs and told them what had happened.

"They didn't believe me," he said.

Father Murphy, after all, was a priest, a man of virtue. Who was going to take the word of a kid? So Weismuller learned his lesson—and kept the terrible secrets no one would believe.

One of the secrets involved a dormitory supervisor at the school who would creep to Weismuller’s side and wake him in the middle of the night. The man would pull the boy from his bed and lead him to a private room and have sex with him. Weismuller said it happened about once a week, week after week, for perhaps six months.

“What was I supposed to say?” he said. “I was afraid.”

Lawyers for the victims say they believe the dorm supervisor was “working in cahoots with Father Murphy,” as investigations revealed that the men often preyed on the same boys. “These deaf kids were so vulnerable,” Finnegan said. “They had no voice. And they were robbed of their childhoods.”

In papers filed in Superior Court in Milwaukee, the suit asks the jury to assess damages. The church, which entered a preliminary denial in court of all allegations of wrongdoing, is now involved in a dispute with its insurance company in the Wisconsin Court of Appeals over whether damages from the alleged abuse should be covered by its liability policy.

In 1974, church officials transferred Murphy to the Diocese of Superior in Wisconsin, without telling anyone about the abuses. The priest was allowed to work among children in a parish—and found yet more victims.

Weismuller is now a mechanic living in Arizona. He still has trouble sleeping. "I have nightmares that I'm back at that school."

It was not until last year that he told his grown children about the terrifying experiences. The wounds still burn, he said, rubbed with the salt of authorities who looked the other way at the sexual horrors endured by the deaf boys who had been sent away to the Catholic boarding school.

"I hate Catholic churches," he said, through an interpreter. "I hate Catholic schools. I hate priests."

Weismuller said he did not dare tell anyone at the school about the incidents, partly out of fear they would think he was a homosexual. “I dealt with a lot, and just kept it in,” he said.

He remembers coming home for the weekend, feeling as if he had escaped, at least briefly, and then feeling the heavy dread when Sunday arrived, and it was time to return to the school in the suburbs of Milwaukee.

Weismuller attended the school from 1969 to 1972. His troubles there were constant. There were fistfights with other students, he recalled, arguments with nuns, and always the feeling of rage. He finally persuaded his parents to allow him to return to suburban Chicago and attend a public school.

He would face Murphy one final time. In 1984, not long before he married his first wife, Weismuller attended a class reunion at St. John’s. Murphy was there. The priest made small talk with Weismuller, then moved through the crowd. As Weismuller watched the priest, he struggled to control his anger.

“I almost hit him,” he recalled. “My wife kept pulling me by the arm, telling me not to do it.”

Now a quarter century after the reunion, Weismuller says he has one regret: He wishes he had punched the priest when he had the chance.