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 - 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 Father Murphy, Cardinal Ratzinger's deputy at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ruled that the alleged molestation had occurred too long ago and that Father 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 Father Murphy wrote Cardinal 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.
Peter Isely, the Milwaukee director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, was one of four Americans who yesterday denounced Pope Benedict's handling of the case.
Mr. 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. "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 Pope 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 Father 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, Father Lombardi noted. He said a lack of more recent allegations was a factor in the decision not to defrock Father Murphy.
Father Murphy worked at the former St. John's School for the Deaf in St. Francis from 1950 to 1975. After Father Murphy was removed from the school, 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.
His alleged victims were not limited to the deaf boys' school. Donald Marshall, 45, of West Allis, Wis., said he was abused by Father 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 said yesterday. "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 Father Murphy show that up to 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 Father Murphy.
Cardinal Ratzinger's deputy, Cardinal Bertone, though, shut the process down after Father Murphy wrote Cardinal Ratzinger saying he had repented, was old and ailing, and that the case's statute of limitations had run out.
The documents contain no response from Cardinal Ratzinger.