Senior Vatican officials, including the current pope, refused to punish a priest who sexually assaulted as many as 200 deaf boys over the course of three decades, despite calls for disciplinary measures from two American bishops.
Documents from a lawsuit brought by the priest's now adult victims against the Milwaukee Diocese, and initially obtained by the New York Times, record the Rev. Lawrence Murphy admitting to diocese officials in the 1990s that he molested dozens of boys while working at St. John's School for the Deaf in St. Francis, Wisc., for 25 years from 1950 to 1975.
The documents also include letters during the 1990s from two Wisconsin bishops to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, asking for permission to prosecute Murphy in a church trial. Ratzinger at the time headed the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the church's disciplinary office.
The office initially authorized a secret church trial for Murphy, but the trial was halted after the priest wrote a letter to Ratzinger asking for mercy.
Sex scandals have been roiling the Catholic Church for nearly a decade, but the Milwaukee case is the closest the scandals have come to tainting the Pope. The Murphy revelations also come as the Pope's handling of sex scandals in Germany and Ireland has been questioned.
"The goal of Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, was to keep this secret," said Peter Isely, Milwaukee-based director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, during a protest today outside the Vatican.
"We need to know why he (the pope) did not let us know about him (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," Isely said.
In Milwaukee, the mother of one of the abused boys, accused the Pope of "lying" through his apologies and said the Church needed to be held accountable.
"There should be no institution that is not accountable for what they do, that is able to hide behind the faith. You know the Catholic Church is very powerful and that should not be," Lynn Pilmaier told reporters. "The Pope, you know, he is lying. I mean his false apologies."
Behind her SNAP supporters spread out photographs of abused children on the sidewalks.
Isely and three other protests were held by Italian police for more than two hours because they didn't have a permit for the news conference.
"We've spent more time in the police station than Father Murphy did in his life," Isely said after his release.
The Vatican released a statement today defending its decision to not prosecute Murphy. The Vatican did not say what role the Pope played in that investigation as head of the office.
The Vatican's statement also noted that Murphy solicited sex in the confessional, a church ritual in which members confess their sins to a priest and seek forgiveness.
Murphy "violated the law and, more importantly, the sacred trust that his victims had placed in him," the Vatican statement said. It added, however, that the church did not complete the process to defrock Murphy because he "was elderly and in very poor health, and ? was living in seclusion and no allegations of abuse had been reported in over 20 years."
Murphy died in 1998.
According to the court documents made public today, then Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland wrote to Ratzinger's office explaining he had just learned of the accusations against Murphy and seeking advice on how to handle the situation.
The congregation's second in command, Cardinal Tarciscio Bertone, now the Vatican's secretary of state, told the Wisconsin bishop to begin a secret trial.
In a personal appeal to Ratzinger, Murphy wrote, "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," he wrote the man who would be pope within a decade.
Bertone then sent a letter to the diocese to stop the secret trial.
The archbishop then handling the case, Bishop Raphael Fliss, objected, saying in a letter to Bertone that "I have come to the conclusion that scandal cannot be sufficiently repaired, nor justice sufficiently restored, without a judicial trial against Fr. Murphy."
Fliss and Weakland then met with Bertone in Rome and told Bertone that Murphy had no sense of remorse and didn't seem to realize the gravity of what he had done, according to a Vatican summary of the meeting.
But Bertone insisted that there weren't "sufficient elements to institute a canonical process" against Murphy.
The victims of Murphy remain angry over the revelations.
"The pope knew about it. He handled sex abuse cases. He should be accountable. He did nothing," said Arthur Budzinski , 61, during a news conference today in Milwaukee. Budzinski said he was abused by Murphy when he was 12 years old and was ignored by police and later Vatican officials when he came forward.
Budzinski said the abuse made with him withdraw as a child, causing him to become "embarrassed and very depressed."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.