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Vatican defends role in Wis. abuse case

Calls criticism of decisions a bid to smear the pope

By Nicole Winfield
Associated Press / March 26, 2010

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VATICAN CITY — The Vatican yesterday strongly defended its decision not to defrock an American priest accused of molesting some 200 deaf boys in Wisconsin and denounced what it called a campaign to smear Pope Benedict XVI and his aides.

Church and Vatican documents showed that in the mid-1990s, two Wisconsin bishops urged the Vatican office led by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — who is now the pope — to let them hold a church trial against the Rev. Lawrence Murphy. The bishops acknowledged that such a trial would occur years after the alleged abuse but argued that the deaf community in Milwaukee was demanding justice from the church.

An American protester in Rome yesterday called the Murphy case an “incontrovertible case of pedophilia.’’

Despite the extensive and grave allegations against Murphy, Ratzinger’s deputy at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ruled that the alleged molestation had occurred too long ago and that Murphy, by then ailing and elderly, should instead repent and be restricted in celebrating Mass.

The official, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, now the Vatican’s secretary of state, ordered the church trial halted after Murphy wrote Ratzinger a letter saying he was ill, infirm, and “simply want to live out the time that I have left in the dignity of my priesthood.’’

The New York Times broke the story yesterday, adding fuel to a swirling scandal about the way the Vatican and Benedict have handled reports of priests raping children over the years.

Yesterday a group of Americans who say they were sexually abused by clerics held a news conference outside St. Peter’s Square to denounce Benedict’s handling of the case and gave reporters church and Vatican documents on the case.

Afterward, Italian police detained four Americans because they did not have a permit for the news conference and suggested they get a lawyer in case a judge decided to press charges, the Americans said.

“We’ve spent more time in the police station than Father Murphy did,’’ Peter Isely, Milwaukee director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said after his release.

The Vatican defended its handling of the Murphy case, saying in the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, that there was no coverup and denouncing what it said was a “clear and despicable intention’’ to strike at Benedict “at any cost.’’

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, issued a statement noting that the Murphy case had reached the Vatican only in 1996, some 20 years after the diocese first learned of the allegations. He also said that Murphy died two years later, in 1998, and that there was nothing in the church’s handling of the matter that precluded any civil action from being taken against him.

In fact, police did investigate the allegations at the time and never proceeded with a case, Lombardi said.

Church and Vatican documents obtained by two lawyers who have filed lawsuits alleging the Archdiocese of Milwaukee did not take sufficient action against Murphy show that as many as 200 deaf students had accused him of molesting them.

While the documents — letters between diocese and Rome, notes taken during meetings, and summaries of meetings — are remarkable in the church officials’ repeated desire to keep the case secret, they also suggest an increasingly determined effort by bishops, albeit 20 years later, to heed the despair of the deaf community in bringing a canonical trial against Murphy.

Ratzinger’s deputy, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, though, shut the process down after Murphy wrote Ratzinger the letter.

Revelations in the Wisconsin case have eerie echoes in Italy, where 67 deaf men and women accused two dozen priests of molesting children for years.

Only now, a year after the Italian case became public, is the Vatican directing the diocese to interview the victims to hear their testimony about the accusations, the Associated Press learned yesterday.