The case of a Wisconsin priest accused of preying on boys at a school for the deaf was presented to the Vatican by one of the victims a year earlier than previously thought, according to documents revealed Thursday in another lawsuit aimed at the highest levels of the Roman Catholic Church.
A man identified in the lawsuit as "John Doe 16" of Illinois wrote a March 5, 1995, letter to then-Vatican Secretary of State Angelo Sodano alleging that the Rev. Lawrence Murphy molested him for a number of years. Previously, it was believed that the Vatican first learned of the allegations against Murphy in a July 1996 letter from Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland.
Murphy, who died in 1998, is accused of sexually abusing some 200 boys at the school from 1950 to 1974. His case drew renewed scrutiny after the recent release of documents suggesting that a Vatican office led by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — now the pope — failed to aggressively discipline Murphy.
Doe 16's letter was released by his attorney, Jeff Anderson of St. Paul, Minn., who provided a copy of a receipt showing the registered letter had reached the Vatican. The man wrote Sodano again and got no response, according to Anderson.
The Vatican dismissed the lawsuit as a publicity stunt that is entirely without merit and rehashes theories already rejected by U.S. courts.
Jeffrey Lena, a U.S. attorney for the Vatican, said in a statement that Murphy's victims deserve sympathy, but the Vatican knew nothing of the crimes until decades later and isn't responsible for the abuse.
Lena said the lawsuit "is simply the latest attempt by certain U.S. lawyers to use the judicial process as a tool of media relations."
A Vatican spokesman has previously said the church's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was only informed of the Murphy case some 20 years after the diocese knew of the allegations and after civil authorities decided to drop their investigation. The congregation suggested that the Wisconsin bishops restrict his ministry rather than stage a full-blown canonical trial, which it had earlier supported.
The lawsuit seeks the release of confidential Vatican files detailing clergy abuse allegations, as well as unspecified monetary damages. It also seeks a jury trial.
The lawsuit says Sodano, Ratzinger and fellow Vatican official Tarcisio Bertone all knew about the allegations against Murphy and conspired to keep them secret. The lawsuit says the claims are based on "information and belief" but doesn't offer proof.
"Ratzinger and Bertone each knew that their inaction and delay would cause harm to Plaintiff and other former deaf students," the lawsuit states.
The court document suggests that the Vatican failed to discipline Murphy because he was a prolific fundraiser.
The defendants are Ratzinger, Bertone, Sodano and the Holy See, identified as the state of the Vatican City. Cardinal Bertone was Ratzinger's deputy at the time of the investigation and is now the Vatican's secretary of state.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, has previously said the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was only informed of the Murphy case some 20 years after the diocese knew of the allegations and after civil authorities decided to drop their investigation. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is the powerful office that among other things investigates clerical sex abuse.
Lombardi has said that given Murphy's age and health, and that no further allegations had been leveled against him. The Wisconsin bishops ordered the proceedings halted, but in the end, Murphy died while still a defendant in a canonical trial.
Associated Press Writer Nicole Winfield in Vatican City contributed to this report. Gorski reported from Denver.
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