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Beloved friends remembered at Indy Red Mass celebration

October 2, 2018

As the Catholic Church is being rocked again by another clerical sex abuse scandal, the Indianapolis St. Thomas More Society held its 59th Annual Red Mass Monday evening and did what everyone does in times of heartache – turned to the comfort of old friends.

The Red Mass is a Catholic celebration meant to impart God’s blessings and divine guidance upon judges, lawyers and legislators of all faiths. In Indiana, dioceses in Lafayette, Gary, Fort Wayne and Evansville, along with Indianapolis, all held Red Mass services this year.

Archbishop Charles Thompson of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis was the main celebrant for this year’s Red Mass held at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in downtown Indianapolis. During his homily, he nodded to the abuse scandal in Pennsylvania, where a grand jury found decades of sexual abuse by more than 300 priests against more than 1,000 victims. While speaking of the church’s longstanding call to help the poor and the vulnerable, Thompson noted the “great trauma” in the church and upon its children.

Since the report from Pennsylvania, the Fort Wayne-South Bend Catholic Diocese and the Indianapolis Diocese have publicized the names of priests accused of sexual abuse.

After the Indianapolis mass, the congregants walked the few blocks in the warm October evening to the Indiana Repertory Theatre to the dinner in the Indiana Roof Ballroom. There, attorneys and priests joined jurists from the state and federal courts in remembering the Rev. Thomas Murphy and Thomas Spencer, two dear friends of the St. Thomas More Society. Murphy died in 2014 and Spencer died unexpectedly in February 2018.

“Father Tom would do anything for anybody just like Tom Spencer,” said Marion Superior Judge David Certo. “They wouldn’t ask, they would just do.”

Spencer, president and owner of Meridian Management Corp., was recognized posthumously with the Indianapolis Society’s highest honor, the Man For All Seasons Award. He was a devout Catholic and regular fixture at the Red Mass.  

Among Spencer’s many services to the Society was his tireless effort to make sure the beloved Murphy was always in attendance at the Red Mass. Murphy was an attorney and had served in the Indiana Legislature before taking his vows in 1985. Even after he was confined to a wheelchair and had difficulty speaking, Murphy would be at the altar with the other priests celebrating the Red Mass.

Patrick Olmstead, president of the Indianapolis St. Thomas More Society, said on the day of the Red Mass, Spencer would leave work early, drive to Murphy’s residence, get the priest, his wheelchair and vestments in the car, then get him to St. John’s early and help him prepare for the religious service. Following the mass, Spencer would take Murphy to the dinner before returning him home and getting him settled for the night.

Monsignor Joseph Schaedel described Spencer as one of his greatest friends and possibly his best friend. Spencer always knew what to do, Schaedel said, and could cope with any situation. Noting the news of abuse, Schaedel told the Red Mass crowd that he greatly missed Spencer. 

“You don’t know how many times that I have wished Tom were here so I could talk about it, this business with the church, with Tom because he would have had a wonderful perspective,” Schaedel said.

Twenty-three members of Spencer’s extended family attended the mass and dinner. His wife, Gayle, accepted the award and thanked the St. Thomas More Society on his behalf.

Certo had a long friendship with Murphy and Spencer. Speaking after the dinner, he talked about the character of the two men.

“Father Tom (Murphy) had a quiet way of leading by his example and in a similar way so did Tom Spencer,” Certo said. “Translating your faith into action is what we all watch for to know whether to trust someone, and that’s what Father Tom and Tom Spencer had in common. You could count on what they said because they showed you every day.”

The evening’s keynote speaker, Jim McClelland, executive director for Drug Prevention, Treatment and Enforcement for the State of Indiana, talked about substance abuse, another cause of heartbreak in communities and households across the state and the country. McClelland said too many people are losing their struggles against drugs, especially opioids, but he noted statistics are showing that abuse is just starting to decline. He had particular praise for problem-solving courts and their efforts toward helping addicts recover their lives.

“Perhaps above all as we address substance abuse, particularly the opioid crisis and the people who are affected by it, we need more compassion and less judgment and, wherever possible, we need to do all that we can to replace despair with hope,” McClelland said.

The Indianapolis St. Thomas More Society had coordinated with the Lafayette Diocese to both celebrate the Red Mass on the same day.

After the dinner, Olmstead acknowledged the clerical sex abuse scandal had caused some members of the legal community to not attend this year’s event. The final attendance reached about 135. Olmstead said he was worried attendance would struggle to top 100, but he was never concerned the Red Mass would be cancelled.

“No matter what happens, the church will be there,” he said. “It’s going to do all the right things. Its people may fail, but the church doesn’t.”

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