A lawsuit filed in Milwaukee Thursday alleges that top Vatican officials failed to take action when told that a priest at a Wisconsin school for the deaf had abused students , and names Pope Benedict XVI and the Vatican itself as defendants in the case.
A man identified in the suit only as "John Doe 16" wrote a letter to Vatican Secretary of State Angelo Sodano, the church's second highest ranking official, on March 5, 1995, charging that Father Lawrence Murphy had molested him at St. Francis School for the Deaf in St. Francis, Wisconsin. Father Murphy taught at the school from 1950 to 1974, and was accused of molesting as many as 200 students.
"That letter from a deaf man fell on deaf ears," said attorney Jeffrey Anderson, who is representing the unnamed plaintiff. He said he and the plaintiff were not seeking monetary relief, but action.
Anderson has previously filed four other lawsuits related to the alleged abuse of deaf boys by Murphy, who died in 1998 without being defrocked. The new suit calls out senior church officials by name, including Sodano, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the church's current Secretary of State, and Pope Benedict XVI, who at the time of the letter was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and in charge of the church's disciplinary office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
"This suit names these Cardinals and top officials because the hot light of scrutiny needs to be put on their actions. Until their actions are scrutinized, they are not changing and they are doing business as usual," Anderson told reporters. "It is the first case we have brought directly against the Vatican." In the 1995 letter, John Doe asked Cardinal Sodano if Pope John Paul II would excommunicate Murphy from the Catholic church.
"I am sure that Pope John Paul II knows of the many priests who have molested hearing children in America," wrote Doe, "but I want you to tell my story to him; that priests have molested DEAF children too. These children lived in dormitories with no chance for escape. I am one of them."
Plaintiff Doe received a receipt for the registered letter to Sodano, showing it had been received. Doe had also enclosed copies of letters previously sent to Murphy and to Milwaukee Archbishop Weakland, in which he detailed his allegations of abuse.
In May 1995, Doe says he sent a second letter to Sodano, asking why he had received no response to his first message.
Last month, lawyers for some of Murphy's accusers released documents that indicated the Vatican first learned of Murphy's alleged behavior from Weakland in 1996, when he alerted Cardinal Ratzinger. The letters released by Anderson indicate that the Vatican was informed of charges against Murphy a full year earlier.
In 1996, decades after he stopped working at the school, the Vatican authorized a secret church trial for Murphy, who confessed to molesting hundreds of boys. The trial, however, was halted after the elderly priest wrote a letter to Ratzinger asking for mercy.
The Vatican last month released a statement defending its decision to not prosecute Murphy. The Vatican, however, did not say what role the Pope played in the investigation or the decision to halt the trial.
Vatican officials would not comment on this latest lawsuit directly, but their U.S. attorney called the case "without merit."
"The case against the Holy See and its officials is completely without merit. Most of the complaint rehashes old theories already rejected by U.S. courts. With regard to Murphy himself, the Holy See and its officials knew nothing of his crimes until decades after the abuse occurred and had no role whatsoever in causing plaintiff's injuries," said attorney Jeffrey S. Lena in a statement. "If necessary, we will respond more fully to this lawsuit in court at the appropriate time," read the statement.
Anderson said he knew he would be accused of grandstanding for the suit's choice of defendants. "This suit names these Cardinals and top officials because the hot light of scrutiny needs to be put on their actions," said Anderson. "Until their actions are scrutinized, they are not changing and they are doing business as usual."
"[The pope] promises to protect the children. Promises do not protect children," said Anderson. Anderson also named the Holy See, meaning the Vatican itself, as a defendant in the case, in hopes of testing the Vatican's claim of immunity as a sovereign state in court. "They have been hiding behind legal shields," said Anderson.
Anna Schecter contributed reporting to this article.