Alaska News

With police investigating Murphy, the alcoholic and abusive priest is banished from Anchorage

Originally published on Aug,. 4, 2003

Second of three parts

AFTER NEARLY 25 YEARS as a parish priest in Anchorage, Monsignor Frank Murphy was given one day by his archbishop, Francis Hurley, to pack and leave town.

It was June 20, 1985, and "Murph," as nearly everyone called him, was 53. For 22 years, a day hadn't passed when the priest missed a drink, and Hurley would tell parishioners that Murphy was going for alcohol treatment in St. Louis.

But the archbishop knew there was a darker side to Murphy's problems: A teenage boy in Murphy's parish had complained to Hurley three years earlier that Murphy had abused him, and now Hurley knew that police were investigating other complaints, according to Anchorage Police Department reports. At least one parishioner and a deacon had complained of pornography in the church.

Murphy's supervisors in the archdiocese were sure he would be returning to St. Benedict's Catholic Church in South Anchorage once he completed his treatment with the Servants of the Paraclete, a religious order specializing in helping addicted priests. They figured he would get back to Anchorage in mid-January 1986.

While he was away, a small delegation of mothers of teen boys from St. Patrick's Parish, the Muldoon-area church served by Murphyfor more than two decades, met with Hurley and the Rev. Steven Moore, vicar general of the archdiocese. One of the mothers, Murnell Fargo, a counselor at McLaughlin Youth Center, had once reported to police that a juvenile in detention said pornography was available to boys at the church. Since then, she had learned that police had begun a full investigation of Murphy for sexual abuse of minors and that was the catalyst for the meeting with Hurley.


[Part 1: Alaska priest’s abuse of boys hidden for decades]

Now the women were demanding that Hurley conduct his own investigation and report back to the parish. But Hurley insisted that Murphy’s problem was booze, two of the women said in interviews.

"We asked was there anything going to be done about Father Murphy and the major charges," Fargo said. "We knew that Father Murphy had not been a good boy with males. We wanted to know what Archbishop Hurley was going to do. He denied they were anything but that Murphy was a drunk, an alcoholic."

The women pressed Hurley, claiming they knew of victims.

"The archbishop, he actually got rather testy," Moore recalled. From his perspective, the women were reporting abuse, but they weren't providing names, dates or places, Moore said, leaving little for Hurley to go on and raising his level of frustration.

Though Moore was the chief administrative officer of the archdiocese, Hurley had not told him that Murphy had admitted three years earlier that he was sexually abusive toward an 18-year-old. So the assertions of the St. Patrick's mothers were the first such complaints he heard.

"I was really quite stunned," Moore said. "I don't think I said anything the whole time I was there."

At least two of the women were known to adhere to the conservative wing of the church. Even before the sexual abuse allegations arose, Moore said, the conservatives had problems with Murphy.

The women left unsatisfied. For Fargo and at least one of the other women, the memory of the meeting remains bitter to this day. It was a lost opportunity for the church to expose and admit wrongdoing by its "servants," learn from mistakes and have "good come from such a horrendous thing," said one participant, who asked that her name not be used.

Hurley, archbishop emeritus of Anchorage since his retirement in 2001, has declined repeated requests to be interviewed, though he responded to some questions in writing.


The officer investigating Murphy was Frank Feichtinger, in charge of the Anchorage Police Department's child sexual exploitation unit. Feichtinger closed the case in June 1985, writing in what he assumed to be his final report that Murphy had gone to St. Louis and, according to Feichtinger's informant, "might not be returning ever."

But Feichtinger reopened the book in November when he heard Murphy was coming back after all.

Tangled up with the sexual abuse case were allegations that Murphy had embezzled more than $50,000 from St. Benedict's and that a police officer, Jim Rehmann, was a beneficiary of some of the money, according to the investigative files.

Rehmann and Murphy gave completely different stories when asked to account for the source of the funds, according to the police reports. In an interview with Feichtinger, Rehmann admitted getting the money, but said Murphy told him it came from a wealthy aunt, not the church, and that he planned to use it to develop property in the Mat-Su Borough. When Murphy was interviewed by church officials, he said he gave Rehmann the money as repayment of a loan to establish a home for troubled boys.

Rehmann, who has retired from the police department, declined to answer questions about the transactions.

"I met Monsignor Murphy in 1972," Rehmann said. From 1977 to Murphy's departure in 1985, "he was my friend and my priest. I haven't heard from him, nor have I corresponded with him since he left, and that's been about 18 years ago now. Beyond that, I have no further comment."


In a recent interview, Moore, the archdiocese vicar general, said both men were asked to repay a share of the missing money.

"Rehmann repaid part of it and Murphy repaid part of it. There was an agreement as to whose was which and it was paid," said Moore, who declined to disclose the actual amounts.

But back in November 1985, according to Feichtinger's reports, Moore pointed out that the police department stood to be as embarrassed as the church if the information became public through criminal charges. Feichtinger wanted financial documentation from church accounts to pursue the embezzlement investigation, but the archdiocese decided not to cooperate.

"Father Moore indicated that the archbishop had stated that money was relatively easy to come by and that it would not be worth the damage done to parties involved to bring this matter to public attention," Feichtinger wrote in a report.

But more important for Feichtinger was what the church would decide to do with Murphy. The police didn't want to see him back in Anchorage.

Feichtinger said that in a meeting with Moore and Hurley on Nov. 25, 1985, he threatened to arrest Murphy at the airport, with reporters and cameras recording the event, if he returned in mid-January as planned. Hurley stormed out, Feichtinger said, but Moore stayed.

Feichtinger's report from that meeting shows that Moore had a realistic assessment of Murphy, even as he attempted to prevent his prosecution.

"Father Moore further indicated that Murphy, during his time in Alaska, had developed a strong following and that he was a charismatic man but also indicated off the record that Murphy was known to be a notorious liar and a con man in many ways. Father Moore stated that there were a large number of people in the Church that could be hurt by public acknowledgment of some of Murphy's activities and that it was the desire of the Church that as few people as possible be hurt by anything that had occurred."


Two days later, Moore told Feich-tinger what he wanted to hear. Hurley had agreed that Murphy would be reassigned to a diocese outside Alaska. And Feichtinger and investigator Justin Koles, Feichtinger's partner on the case and a St. Patrick's parishioner, said they received reassurances that Murphy couldn't be a secret abuser in his new city. Wherever Murphy landed, local police were to be alerted to Murphy's past sexual, financial and alcohol problems, both officers said. Feichtinger's police report, however, is ambiguous, saying only that Hurley agreed to alert "officials" within the "receiving" diocese.

Hurley said in a written response to questions from the Daily News that he only agreed to notify "any bishop of a diocese into which Monsignor Murphy might choose to retire."

In a recent interview, Koles defended the decision to close the case.

"Part of this looks like the police department covered it up and that's not the case," said Koles, who is retired and lives in Washington state. "We just flat out didn't have enough at that time. When the bishop decided he was going to take care of this matter, we can (use the freed time to) pursue our 40 million other cases."

So instead of returning to his adopted Alaska home, Murphy went the other way, to his birthplace in Massachusetts. His parents, in their 90s, still lived in Belmont, Mass., and Murphy moved back in with them while he tried to figure out what to do next.

In returning to the Boston suburb, Murphy not only came home, he entered into what would become the epicenter of the priest sexual misconduct scandal that unfolded in 2002 and is still continuing.


If parishioners in Anchorage were told by church officials that Monsignor Murphy's sudden and permanent departure was because of his alcoholism, church officials in the Boston archdiocese were under no such illusion.

On Feb. 24, 1986, a month after Murphy completed his treatment in St. Louis, the Rev. John McCormack, secretary for ministerial personnel of the Boston Archdiocese, sent a briefing memo on Murphy to his superior, Bishop Robert Banks.

"Frank cannot return to his Diocese of Anchorage because of police interest in him," McCormack wrote. "He is alleged to have had sexual involvement with one or more youths. One youth denies it. Allegations by other youths would probably not stand up in court, according to the diocese, but it is necessary to avoid any court situation. He has acted out sexually when drinking."

The Paracletes too concluded that Murphy had a major sexual issue, and it was in addition to his problems with alcohol, McCormack wrote.

McCormack's memo was among some 300 pages from Murphy's confidential personnel file in Boston released in February. Under a court order obtained by The Boston Globe, which won a Pulitzer Prize this year for its coverage of the priest scandal, the Boston Archdiocese must make public its files of priests accused of sexual misconduct.


The files, covering the decade that Murphy spent in Boston, show a priest who consistently attempted to circumvent restrictions imposed on him to avoid parish work and stay in close contact with supervisors. But they also show that he was rigorous in sticking to his alcohol recovery program through at least three Alcoholics Anonymous meetings a week, regular counseling with a therapist and a spiritual adviser, and periodic return visits to the Paracletes in St. Louis.

There was no indication in the files that he ever fell off the wagon or that he abused any new victims. In an interview, Murphy said that he left St. Louis sober in mid-January 1986 and never had another drink, never had another sexual encounter and never again viewed pornography.

Murphy knew the Boston area well. He grew up in the Irish working-class suburb of Belmont. He was ordained on Feb. 2, 1957, at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston, the "Mother Church" of the archdiocese, and still knew many of the local priests.

"He went back, and it was very clear that he was going back and living with his parents, taking care of his parents as they were dying," said Moore of the Anchorage Archdiocese. "It was real clear if there was going to be any ministry, he would have to show that in day-to-day life he could stay sober for a significant period of time, be in recovery for a significant period of time before he was able to do anything."

Church officials in Anchorage, where Murphy was still officially attached, and in Boston wanted to be sure that Murphy wasn't in an unsupervised situation around families, especially young men, as he was in Anchorage. But Murphy didn't make it easy for them.

In May 1986, Moore paid a visit to Boston, meeting with Murphy and archdiocese officials. In a May 30, 1986, memo to Hurley, he reported that Murphy was "manipulating his situation in Boston" by "dragging his feet" on a suggestion that he take classes to become a hospital chaplain -- and leave unsupervised parish work, possibly forever. McCormack complained to Moore that he found out secondhand that Murphy "was involved in part-time parish ministry without the permission of the Archdiocese."


At the same time, Moore told Hurley, McCormack "is concerned that the sexuality issue is more than a passing concern connected with the alcoholism. He stated that Frank had not been candid with him on the issue of his sexuality and previous sexual acting out. As a result, John is concerned about what sort of risk the Boston Archdiocese would be taking in placing Frank Murphy."

In response, Hurley directed Moore to tell Boston church officials that Murphy knew all along that he was to be candid "on both the sexuality and alcohol issues," and had been warned his authority to function as a priest would be revoked "if there was even a suspicion of his acting out."

Quoting Hurley in his letter to McCormack, Moore said, "Frank has a long history of manipulative behavior to overcome."

Prodded by the authorities, Murphy entered the clinical pastoral education program associated with Bon Secours Hospital near Boston, now Holy Family Hospital and Medical Center. But while the top officials in the archdiocese insisted that Murphy be candid with them, those officials weren't always candid with the people who directly oversaw Murphy.

In a memo on Nov. 17, 1986, McCormack told Bishop Banks that a fellow student of Murphy's would be the Rev. Paul Tivnan, who was accused of molesting at least two adolescent boys at parishes in Marlboro and Chelsea, Mass.

In a handwritten response at the bottom of McCormack's memo, Banks wrote: "God help us when Bon Secours finds that two priests there have the same problem!"

Two months later, Murphy passed the job interview. Sister Anne Maureen Doherty, on the hiring committee, formally asked Hurley's permission to hire Murphy on Dec. 22, 1987. Her understanding of why Murphy was in Boston, as reported in the letter: "Fr. Murphy is on leave of absence from the Diocese of Anchorage because of illness in the family."


Murphy's popularity grew in Massachusetts, even among those who knew his background.

"I know that I need to be a bit wary of his charm and engaging manner, and maybe you are the best judge of that," McCormack wrote Hurley on July 5, 1989. "Frank looks wonderful, sounds wonderful, and from all the reports I get, is doing wonderful."

Murphy continued to own his Shangri-La property in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, a 14-acre retreat north of Palmer off Buffalo Mine Road, and expressed hope that he would someday return to Anchorage.

He wasn't forgotten in Anchorage and remained well-liked. Hardly anyone knew why he left town. In a written announcement in January 1986 naming Murphy's replacement as pastor of St. Benedict's, Hurley explained Murphy's departure by saying he was given permission to take a sabbatical year of studies, according to an item published in the Daily News.

In a letter to Murphy dated Nov. 2, 1987, Hurley noted, "People still ask about you. And, of course, we still exchange anecdotes, which in time will probably take on the aura of Murphyisms."

Officer Feichtinger hadn't forgotten about Murphy either. When he learned that Murphy had landed the hospital job, he decided to call the police in Massachusetts to see if Hurley had alerted authorities there. He reached the Belmont Police Department -- where Murphy's parents lived and where Murphy stayed when he arrived in Massachusetts -- but no one had heard of Murphy. Feichtinger packed up a copy of his files and sent them to Inspector William T. Mahoney.

On June 6, 1988, Mahoney wrote back, thanking Feichtinger.

"I read in your report that the Church agreed to notify local authorities whenever he is reassigned. This, obviously, was not done. Chief Robert Shea and I extend our gratitude to you for alerting us to a possible situation about which we had no prior knowledge," Mahoney wrote.

Mahoney said he would also inform authorities in Methuen, Mass., the location of Bon Secours Hospital.

Ironically, it was Feichtinger's own arrest and subsequent trial that led to the first public exposure, however brief, of Murphy.

Feichtinger was charged with official misconduct on Oct. 26, 1988, after he made pornographic, sadomasochistic audiotapes using teenage boys. He claimed he made the tape to entrap real abusers, but his "actors" said they themselves were abused.

On Dec. 4, 1989, as Feichtinger's trial was getting under way, Hurley called McCormack to warn him that the officer's attorney "is asking people who are testifying why a Catholic priest was not prosecuted for pilfering money from the Church and fooling around with juveniles." Up to that point, Hurley said, Murphy had not been mentioned by name.

That changed on Dec. 29, 1989, when Feichtinger took the stand in support of his claim that he was being prosecuted to protect the high-profile suspects he had investigated, including an Anchorage judge.

Feichtinger described his case against Murphy. While neither the Anchorage Daily News nor The Anchorage Times named Murphy in their accounts of that day's testimony, long-time parishioners at St. Patrick's or St. Benedict's wouldn't have had much difficulty figuring it out.

Feichtinger was acquitted on all charges but lost his job.

Rather than use Feichtinger's disclosures as an opportunity to acknowledge the past, Hurley wrote an open letter to Murphy on Jan. 31, 1990, that obscured it.

"As occasionally happens in court cases, someone's name surfaces unexpectedly," Hurley said. "When the publicity dies down that name is left swinging in the wind. That is where your name is now, left dangling in the wind, as people wonder about the behavior alleged about you in the media."

In that public letter, Hurley said Murphy was sent away for alcoholism treatment, neglecting to mention that he was also treated for sexual issues. Nor did he say that police planned to arrest Murphy if he returned to Anchorage. Instead, he attributed Murphy's problems to ungrateful youths with their own legal troubles.

"Four months later I visited you in the treatment center in St. Louis to tell you could not return to Anchorage. You were shocked and listened in stunned silence to my explanation that some time after you left for treatment I learned that some young men whom you had taken and helped were poised to try to implicate you in their problems with the police. It was my conviction that should allegations be made against you, whether verifiable or not, this was no place for a newly recovering alcoholic to be. To submit you to such pressure could easily have unraveled the life you were gradually putting back together."

Hurley acknowledged that he was not answering the questions of those who might wonder if Feichtinger's allegations were true. "There is no disposition on my part to respond to a series of allegations."

The matter died down, and Murphy continued his work at the hospital, receiving good reviews and annual reappointments.


Archbishop Hurley celebrated his 25th anniversary as head of the Anchorage Archdiocese in 1994. To mark the event, he visited the churches in his jurisdiction and met informally with parishioners, including two sisters whose feedback was stunning.

In a letter Michelle (Podvin) Boyden and Maggie (Podvin) Ridges jointly wrote on Oct. 23, 1994, they said:

"We thought that now may be a good time to let you know how your handling of a situation has affected at least five past parishioners of the Archdiocese of Anchorage. Our oldest brother, Kent Podvin, was sexually molested by Monsignor Francis Murphy. We also know our other brother was approached by Monsignor Murphy and reported this to you. We understand you chose not to act on this information because it would look bad for the Church, or you may have been trying to protect Monsignor Murphy. Since that time a lot has happened in our lives that can be directly traced to Monsignor Murphy's inappropriate behavior."

The sisters went on to say that Hurley should have investigated Murphy when their younger brother Pat complained in 1982 that Murphy approached him sexually.

"We find it very difficult to believe that you were not aware of, or at least suspicious of, the existence of other victims," they wrote.

By 1994, the Catholic Church in America had just been through the first wave of scandals involving priests, and dioceses around the nation were directed to set up committees to investigate sexual misconduct. Kent Podvin, then living in an eastern state, was invited to tell his story. At that time, the committee consisted of three people, two of whom worked directly for the archdiocese: Moore and its lawyer, Jim Gorski. The third member was long-time church activist Nan Dietz.

Podvin spoke by phone to Moore on Dec. 19 of his encounter with Murphy as a high-school junior, 16 or 17 years old.

"I know that in talking about it with Kent, I said I obviously have to take this further and I have to let Murphy know about it," Moore said. "And I'm sure I said this could result in his being removed from ministry. He said that wasn't his goal. But he understood that that was a possibility."

Moore prepared a memo on the conversation for the other committee members. A copy ended up in Murphy's Boston file.

Hurley decided Moore should go to Boston to confront Murphy. Hurley called Murphy on a pretext to make sure he would be in town, and Moore arrived in Boston on Jan. 9, 1995. Without Murphy knowing, Moore made plans to send Murphy to St. Luke Institute in Maryland, which specializes in evaluating and treating priests with sexual problems.

Then Moore called Murphy at the hospital.

When Murphy realized it wasn't a long-distance call, "my anxiety went into overdrive," he recalled.

It was the end of Murphy’s new life in Boston.

Richard Mauer

Richard Mauer was a longtime reporter and editor for the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Dispatch News. He left the ADN in 2017.