VATICAN CITY - The Vatican on Thursday 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 - now the pope - to let them hold a church trial against the Rev. Lawrence Murphy. The bishops admitted the trial was coming years after the alleged abuse, but argued that the deaf community in Milwaukee was demanding justice from the church.
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 - then ailing and elderly - should instead repent and be restricted from celebrating Mass outside of his diocese.
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 Thursday, adding fuel to a swirling scandal about the way the Vatican in general, and Benedict in particular, have handled reports of priests raping children over the years.
On Thursday, a group of clerical abuse victims staged a press conference outside St. Peter's Square in Rome to denounce Benedict's handling of the case and gave reporters church and Vatican documents on the case.
Afterward, Italian police detained four American abuse victims for 2 1/2 hours because they didn't have a permit for the news conference and suggested they get a lawyer in case a judge decided to press charges, the victims said.
"We've spent more time in the police station than Father Murphy did in his life," Peter Isely, the Milwaukee-based director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said after his release.
Speaking at the earlier press conference, Isely called the Murphy case the most "incontrovertible case of pedophilia you could get."
"The goal of Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, was to keep this secret," he said, flanked by photos of other clerical abuse victims and a poster of Ratzinger. "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."
The Vatican issued a strong defense in its handling of the Murphy case. The Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano said there was no cover-up and denounced 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 only reached the Vatican in 1996 - some 20 years after the diocese first learned of the allegations. He also said 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 noted.
Murphy worked at the former St. John's School for the Deaf in St. Francis from 1950 to 1975. His alleged victims were not limited to the deaf boys' school. Donald Marshall, 45, of West Allis, Wisconsin, said he was abused by Murphy when he was a teenager at the Lincoln Hills School, a juvenile detention center in Irma in northern Wisconsin.
"I haven't stepped in a church for some 20 years. I lost all faith in the church," he told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday. "These predators are preying on God's children. How can they even stand up at the pulpit and preach the word of God?"
Church and Vatican documents obtained by two lawyers who have filed lawsuits alleging the Archdiocese of Milwaukee didn't take sufficient action against Murphy show that as many as 200 deaf students had accused him of molesting them, including in the confessional, while he ran the school.
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 do 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 a letter saying he had repented, was old and ailing, and that the case's statute of limitations had run out.
"I have just recently suffered another stroke which has left me in a weakened state," he wrote Ratzinger. "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.
According to the documentation, in July 1996, then-Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland sent a letter seeking advice on how to proceed with Murphy to Ratzinger, who led the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1981 until 2005, when he was elected pope.
Weakland explained that he was writing because he had only recently learned that the reason Murphy stopped working in 1975 was because he had been accused of soliciting sex in the confessional, one of the gravest sins in canon law.
Weakland received no response from Ratzinger, and in October 1996 convened a church tribunal to hear the case.
In March 1997, Weakland wrote to the Vatican's Apostolic Signatura, essentially the Vatican high court, asking its advice because he feared the statute of limitations on Murphy's alleged crimes might have expired.
Just a few weeks later, Bertone told the Wisconsin bishops to begin secret disciplinary proceedings against Murphy according to 1962 norms concerning soliciting sex in the confessional, according to the documents.
But a year later, Bertone reversed himself, advising the diocese to stop the process after Murphy wrote to Ratzinger. Bertone suggested that Murphy should instead be subject to "pastoral measures destined to obtain the reparation of scandal and the restoration of justice."
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 in May 1988. Weakland informed 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 because so much time had already passed, according to the summary. Instead, he said Murphy must be forbidden from celebrating Mass publicly outside his home diocese.
Weakland, likening Murphy to a "difficult" child, then reminded Bertone that three psychologists had determined he was a "typical" pedophile, in that he felt himself a victim.
But Bertone suggested Murphy take a spiritual retreat to determine if he is truly sorry, or otherwise face possible defrocking.
"Before the meeting ended, Monsignor Weakland reaffirmed the difficulty he will have to make the deaf community understand the lightness of these provisions," the summary noted.
The documents contain no response from Ratzinger.
The documents emerged even as the Vatican deals with an ever-widening church abuse scandal sweeping several European countries. Benedict last week issued an unprecedented letter to Ireland addressing the 16 years of church cover-up scandals there. But he has yet to say anything about his handling of a case in Germany known to have developed when, as cardinal, he oversaw the Munich Archdiocese from 1977 to 1982.
Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said in the statement that a lack of more recent allegations was a factor in the decision not to defrock Murphy and noted that "the Code of Canon Law does not envision automatic penalties."
After Murphy was removed from the school in 1974, he went to northern Wisconsin, where he spent the rest of his life working in parishes, schools and, according to one lawsuit, a juvenile detention center.
Previously released court documents show Weakland oversaw a 1993 evaluation of Murphy that concluded the priest likely assaulted up to 200 students at the school.
Weakland resigned as archbishop in 2002 after admitting the archdiocese secretly paid $450,000 to a man who accused him of sexual abuse.