The Vatican on Thursday defended its decision not to defrock a Wisconsin priest accused of sexually assaulting as many as 200 deaf boys from the 1950s to the 1970s and denounced what it called a "despicable" attempt to smear Pope Benedict XVI and his aides.
But Wisconsin advocates for victims of clergy sex abuse suggested the Vatican's handling of the case involving Father Lawrence Murphy - and revelations on similar cases in Europe - provide evidence of an institutional coverup that spanned decades and continents.
"We are finally able to get this where we believe it belongs, and that's at the Vatican's doorstep," Mark Salmon of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said at a Thursday morning news conference outside the Archdiocese of Milwaukee's headquarters.
Murphy is believed to have molested as many as 200 deaf boys in his 25 years at St. John's School for the Deaf in St. Francis, luring many of his victims through the confessional.
According to documents obtained as part of a civil lawsuit against the Milwaukee Archdiocese, two Wisconsin bishops including then-Archbishop Rembert Weakland urged the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI - to allow them to conduct a church trial of Murphy, who had moved to the Superior Diocese and was continuing in ministry.
Ratzinger's deputy at the Congregation ruled that the charges were too old and that Murphy, then ailing and elderly, should instead repent and be restricted from celebrating Mass outside of his diocese.
That deputy, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, now the Vatican's secretary of state, ordered the church trial halted after Murphy wrote Ratzinger saying he was ill and infirm, and "simply want to live out the time that I have left in the dignity of my priesthood."