For Madison priest, social justice carries a price

  • Article by: DOUG ERICKSON
  • Associated Press
  • July 5, 2014 - 12:05 AM

MADISON, Wis. — On May 17, police arrested two people for trespassing and disorderly conduct at Volk Field, a military facility about 90 minutes northwest of Madison.

One was a priest, or so it seemed.

"Are you really a clergy member, or is this just a costume?" the Rev. Jim Murphy remembers the arresting officer asking him.

Murphy, 60, who leads two rural parishes in Grant and Iowa counties, assured the officer he is a priest in the Madison Catholic Diocese. Officers took to calling him "father" as they fingerprinted and photographed him.

Murphy was at Volk Field that day protesting drones, unmanned aerial vehicles. It was his first arrest at Volk Field, but his eighth or ninth overall — he lost count.

All of the arrests were for anti-war activism, except for one in the late 1980s when he was part of a group that blocked the doors to a Madison abortion clinic. Brent King, spokesman for the diocese, said he was unaware of another priest in the 133-priest diocese who has been arrested for his activism on social issues as many times as Murphy.

Bishop Robert Morlino called Murphy "a perfect example" of someone who correctly understands the role of one's conscience in guiding one's actions.

"It calls somebody, in the end, to something higher, to something that is beyond the minimum," Morlino told the Wisconsin State Journal (

The arrests speak to Murphy's level of commitment, but they are just one aspect of a passion that has taken him from leafleting grocery stores on behalf of migrant lettuce pickers during his seminary days in Milwaukee to his current efforts advocating on behalf of Latino immigrants working in Wisconsin's dairy industry.

"Everyone knows Murph as the guy who does the social justice work," said the Rev. Ken Klink, 73, of Madison, a retired Catholic priest who has known Murphy for more than 40 years and refers to him by his nickname. "Flat out, he's been the most courageous, the most outspoken."

It is a sometimes lonely path.

"There are those within the church who would not be supportive of what he's doing," said Joyce Ellwanger, 77, of Milwaukee, who served time in a federal prison for her anti-war activism and who protested alongside Murphy for many years.

Some people certainly see the church as being called to feed the hungry, Ellwanger said, but when you start asking them why there are so many hungry people, they get uncomfortable.

"They don't want to get at the root causes," she said. "Jim sees that as his calling."

Murphy grew up in the Madison Catholic Diocese on a small farm in Briggsville, east of Wisconsin Dells. His parents, fervent Catholics, were not particularly political, but they were engaged in the community, his dad serving on the Dells school board.

"They taught me to do what was right, not what was popular," Murphy said.

For high school, his parents sent him to Holy Name Seminary in Madison, a boarding school — now closed — for boys interested in the priesthood.

Unlike some of his classmates, he suffered no angst in discerning a calling, he said. His only sibling also felt it. She is a nun.

During seminary in Milwaukee, a fellow student got him involved in the Catholic Worker Movement and United Farm Workers of America, trying to unionize grape and lettuce workers. He found his niche: Catholic social teaching.

He grounds his activism in the words of popes and bishops. His favorite lines come from a document produced in 1971 by a synod of bishops, who called action on behalf of justice one of the most important obligations of the church.

"Faith is not just about getting to heaven," Murphy said. "It's also about transforming our world."

He has been a priest in the Madison Catholic Diocese for 33 years, serving a number of parishes. At each one, he started a peace and justice committee. Craig Jenkins, 43, is a member of the recently formed one at the parishes Murphy serves in Highland and Montfort.

"I think with perhaps some of our older parishioners, getting arrested might be a little controversial," Jenkins said. "To be honest, I was quite proud of him. To stand up for what you believe is quite honorable."

On May 17, Murphy and another longtime peace activist, Bonnie Block of Madison, entered Volk Field legally on a tour bus provided by the military during an open house event. Once on the base, they began distributing flyers critical of the military's use of drones.

"At that point, they ceased to be our guests because their intent was no longer to learn about the base," said Maj. Paul Rickert, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs.

The Wisconsin National Guard has tested the RQ-7B Shadow drone at Volk Field since 2011, and a $4.5 million drone training facility opened there last year.

The Shadow is equipped with a camera and carries no weapons, Rickert said.

Military officials told Murphy and Block many times to leave but they refused, according to police reports. Juneau County sheriff's deputies handcuffed the two and booked them at the Mauston jail.

The tentative charges of criminal trespassing and disorderly conduct were reduced by the district attorney to one civil forfeiture violation each for trespassing, a frequent outcome in such cases. Despite his lengthy rap sheet, Murphy said he's spent just one night in jail and served two years on federal probation.

In the current case, Murphy and Block could pay a fine and be done with it, but both say they are leaning toward requesting a bench trial so they can explain their views in open court.

Drones, when equipped to drop bombs, can kill indiscriminately and without due process, and their use as a tool to prevent terrorism, rather than as a response to a direct threat, raises moral and ethical questions, Murphy said.

Those concerns are shared by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. President Barack Obama has defended the use of military attack drones, saying they have saved the lives of soldiers while knocking out terrorist plots against the U.S.

Two days before the Volk Field protest, Murphy phoned Morlino to let him know there was a chance he would be arrested.

"Bishop Morlino said he recognized that I needed to follow my conscience, and he said he would pray for me," Murphy said.

The two have an interesting history. While they agree on many issues, such as their opposition to abortion, they split on Morlino's 2005 appointment to a federal advisory board for the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.

The much-criticized facility trains Latin American military leaders and was formerly known as the School of the Americas. Morlino said at the time he sought to bring Catholic values to the facility's operation.

Murphy organized a 25-hour session of prayer and fasting in protest of Morlino accepting the position. Still, mutual respect prevailed.

Morlino allowed the protest to occur at the Bishop O'Connor Catholic Pastoral Center, the diocesan headquarters. For his part, Murphy declined to criticize the bishop in the press, saying he owed it to Morlino to communicate his concerns directly.

Today, Morlino speaks highly of Murphy's devotion to a cause.

"Father Murphy knows the consequences of behavior and he accepts them," Morlino said. "He is in communication with the bishop, and I could not be more in support of him."

An AP Member Exchange Feature shared by Wisconsin State Journal

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