The Vatican was under renewed pressure last night to explain its handling of historical child abuse scandals after documents emerged showing that an office which was once headed up by Pope Benedict XVI decided not to defrock an American priest who been accused of abusing more than 200 deaf children.
Lawyers acting on behalf of victims in the United States released a series of letters yesterday from two Wisconsin bishops asking the Vatican for permission to press ahead with a church trial against Reverend Lawrence Murphy.
Many of the letters detailed correspondence between the bishops and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the influential Vatican body tasked with investigating abuse cases that was run by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger until he became pontiff in 2005.
Murphy had been accused of a string of sex attacks throughout the 1960s and 1970s and, although no criminal charges had been brought against him, the Catholic Church in Wisconsin was under pressure from the deaf community to strip him of his priestly duties.
In 1996 the then Archbishop of Milwaukee, Rembert Weakland, wrote to Cardinal Ratzinger's office asking for permission to begin a canonical trial for Murphy, who worked at the St John's School for the Deaf in Milwaukee from 1950 to 1974 and had admitted to many of the abuse allegations. Initially the Congregation recommended a secret disciplinary hearing for the priest, but the following year it backtracked after Cardinal Ratzinger received a personal appeal from Murphy begging for clemency. He died a year later in 1998 and was buried in full priestly vestments. The Congregation did not contact the police about the allegations.
The letters are both enlightening and potentially embarrassing for the Vatican because they illuminate the secretive workings of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the man who ran it for more than 20 years before becoming Pope.
One of the Congregation's tasks is to investigate all child abuse scandals in the Church, and in the past 15 years it has dealt with thousands of cases of clerical abuse. But much of the work it has done on paedophile priests remains shrouded in secrecy.
American victims of clerical abuse rounded on the Vatican yesterday, criticising its handling of their complaints and calling on the Pope to personally account for his time as head of the Congregation. Four victims from the US-based Survivor Network of those Abused by Priests (Snap) travelled to Rome yesterday to hold a demonstration in St Peter's Square calling on the Vatican to open up all its files on paedophile priests and immediately defrock anyone found to have abused a child.
"The goal of Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, was to keep this secret," said Peter Isely, the Milwaukee-based director of Snap. "This is the most incontrovertible case of paedophilia you could get. We need to know why [the Pope] did not let us know about [Murphy] and why he didn't let the police know about him and why he did not condemn him and why he did not take his collar away from him."
The group handed out photocopies of the letters between the bishops and the Vatican on Murphy. Shortly afterwards they were stopped by police officers who confiscated their passports and led the group off for questioning.
The Catholic Church is currently battling a series of historical clerical abuse scandals that have emerged in Europe in the past two months. The Pope has already been personally dragged into the scandals after it emerged that a paedophile priest was allowed to continue working in the Munich diocese when Ratzinger was a bishop there in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Survivor groups are also angry that the leader of the world's Roman Catholics penned a now controversial 2001 order handed down by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reminding churches around the world to investigate abuse allegations internally before deciding whether to report them to the authorities.
The Vatican yesterday hit back at allegations in Milwaukee insisting that there had been no attempt to cover up Murphy's actions.
The Vatican spokesman, the Reverend Federico Lombardi, issued a statement noting that the case had only reached the Vatican in 1996, that Murphy died two years later, and that there was nothing in the church's handling of the matter that precluded any civil action from being taken against him.
Earlier in the day one of the Pope's top aides repeated the often-voiced Vatican line that the new rash of abuse allegations coming out of Europe and North America are part on an ongoing "conspiracy" against the Church.
"This is a pretext for attacking the Church," said Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins. "There is a well-organised plan with a very clear aim."
Sex abuse row: Letters of a scandal
The following are edited extracts from letters about Father Murphy's crimes
*From: Reverend Lawrence Murphy
To: His Excellency Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Dear Cardinal Ratzinger
My case can be summarized as follows: In 1974, I resigned from the St John School for the Deaf, St Francis, Wisconsin, in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, because of accusations of sexual misconduct
Nearly five years ago, however, some former students of St John's began contacting the Archdiocese of Milwaukee raising allegations against me. These were not allegations of recent misconduct, but were for offenses allegedly committed between the years 1963 and 1969. Some of the allegations involved solicitation in the confessional.
I ask that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declare the decree of citation by the Diocese of Superior invalid. The accusations against me were from actions alleged to have taken place over 25 years ago.
I am 72 years of age, your Eminence, and am in poor health. I have just recently suffered another stroke, which has left me in a weakened state ... I have repented of any of my past transgressions, and have been living peaceably in northern Wisconsin for 24 years. I simply want to live out the time that I have left in the dignity of my priesthood. I ask your kind assistance in this matter.
*From: Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Congregatio pro Doctrina Fidei in Rome
To: Rev. Raphael Michael Fliss, Bishop of Superior, USA.
I am writing in relation to the case, already known to you, of Fr Lawrence MURPHY, a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee who resides in Boulder Junction, accused of solicitation in confession against disabled minors.
Fr MURPHY wrote a letter dated 12 January 1998 to this Congregation requesting that the Decree of citation issued from your diocesan Tribunal on 6 January be declared invalid.
Fr Murphy also stated that he wished to live out the time that he has left in the dignity of his priesthood...taking into consideration what has been expressed by Fr Murphy in his letter, and before deciding upon a judicial process to establish the canonical responsibilities of the accused priest, the Congregation invites Your Excellency to give careful consideration to what canon 1341 proposes as pastoral measures destined to obtain the reparation of scandal and the restoration of justice.
I take the opportunity to wish you a blessed Easter in the joy of the risen Christ and with sincere respects, I remain,
Yours devotedly to the Lord,