Page last updated at 11:54 GMT, Friday, 26 March 2010

Vatican attacks media on 'Pope role' in sex abuse cases

Victim Arthur Budzinski says Vatican members knew about the scandal

The Vatican has attacked the media over charges that the Pope failed to act against a US priest accused of abusing up to 200 deaf boys two decades ago.

A Vatican newspaper editorial said the claims were an "ignoble" attack on the Pope and that there was no "cover-up".

The head of the UK Catholic church said the Pope had made important changes to the way abuse was dealt with.

The Catholic church has been hit by a series of allegations in Europe and the US over the past months.

The latest allegations stem from the US, after it emerged that Archbishops had complained in 1996 about a priest, Fr Lawrence Murphy. Their complaints went to a Vatican office led by the future Pope Benedict XVI.

There was no immediate response. Later an internal trial was initiated, but it was halted following a plea from Fr Murphy.

One victim told the BBC the Pope had known of a cover-up "for many years".

Arthur Budzinski, now 61, said Pope Benedict should confess about what he knew.

Arthur Budzinski receives his first Holy Communion in 1958 (family photo)
The Pope knew for many, many years
Arthur Budzinski
Alleged Wisconsin child abuse victim

He said through an interpreter: "It goes all the way up to him - he was in charge of these types of cases."

The recent allegations against the Catholic Church echo paedophilia scandals that rocked the institution in America eight years ago.

Allegations of the abuse of deaf children have also resurfaced in Italy, where interviews with several victims were due to be broadcast on national television on Friday.

At least 14 former pupils at the Antonio Provolo Institute for the Deaf in the northern city of Verona say they were abused between the 1950s and the 1980s.

They complained to local Church authorities as early as 2008.

The diocese of Verona said this week that it intends to interview the victims following a request from the Vatican to do so.

And in a separate case, the Legionaries of Christ, an ultra-Conservative congregation within Catholicism, condemned the "reprehensible" actions of their Mexican founder, the late Fr Marcial Maciel Degollado, who sexually abused a number of children in the 1940s and 1950s.

'No cover-up'

Fr Murphy is suspected of abusing some 200 boys at St John's School for the Deaf in St Francis, Wisconsin, between 1950 and 1974.

Christopher Landau
Christopher Landau, BBC religious affairs correspondent

Pope Benedict's 2008 meeting with victims of abuse in the United States showed he was unafraid to be personally associated with the church's apology. Some Catholics now fear that enemies of the church are determined to link the pope with the crisis.

While it's clear that in his latter years as a Vatican official, the then Cardinal Ratzinger initiated bold measures to tackle the issue head-on, legitimate questions remain about his handling of sexual abuse cases earlier in his career.

And for a serving pope to have any degree of personal association with such a damaging scandal facing the church creates a climate of unease and uncertainty for the whole institution.

According to Church documents, an archbishop wrote in 1996 to a Vatican morals watchdog led by the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to complain about Fr Murphy.

A canonical trial was authorised by the future pope's deputy, but was later halted, despite objections from a second archbishop.

Fr Murphy had written to Cardinal Ratzinger saying he was ill and wanted to live out his life in the "dignity of my priesthood".

The Pope's official spokesman, Federico Lombardi, said the Murphy case had only reached the Vatican in 1996 - two decades after the Milwaukee diocese in Wisconsin first learned of the allegations, and two years before the priest died.

The diocese had been asked to take action by "restricting Father Murphy's public ministry and requiring that Father Murphy accept full responsibility for the gravity of his acts", Fr Lombardi said.

"Father Murphy died approximately four months later, without further incident," the statement said.

The papal spokesman also noted that police at the time investigated the allegations, but did not bring charges.

A strongly worded Vatican newspaper editorial said there was "no cover-up" over the case, which was reported in Thursday's edition of the New York Times.

L'Osservatore Romano labelled the allegations "clearly an ignoble attempt to strike at Pope Benedict and his closest aides at any cost".

Meanwhile, one of the Pope's top aides, Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, told reporters there was "a conspiracy" against the Church, without specifying who was responsible.

The Pope was also supported in the UK by the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, who said the then Cardinal Ratzinger had not been an "idle observer" in the case.

Writing in the Times, the Archbishop also said the Pope had introduced changes into Church law to protect children.

The BBC's Robert Pigott in Milwaukee says the US case is particularly shocking, not only because the priest abused boys but because he was allowed to go on to another diocese where he had access to children all over again.

Our correspondent says that although there is no direct evidence against the then Cardinal Ratzinger, this is an uncomfortable confluence of events for the Vatican. This is a case of concealment, he says, and that is where the Pope will have a case to answer.

Ireland letter

Fr Murphy - who admitted abusing boys before he died in 1998 - is said to have targeted victims in their dormitory beds, on school trips and even at confession.

Undated photo of the Rev Lawrence Murphy
Fr Lawrence Murphy died in 1998 with no official blemish on his record

Lawsuits have been filed on behalf of five men alleging the Archdiocese of Milwaukee did not take sufficient action against the priest.

Last week the Pope issued an unprecedented letter to Ireland addressing the 16 years of clerical cover-up scandals.

He has yet to comment on his handling of a child sex abuse case involving a German priest, which developed while Benedict was overseeing the Munich archdiocese.

Fr Peter Hullermann had been accused of abusing boys when the now Pope approved his 1980 transfer to Munich to receive psychological treatment for paedophilia.

The disgraced priest was convicted in 1986 of abusing a youth, but stayed within the Church for another two decades.

Sir Ken Macdonald, former Director of Public Prosecutions in England and Wales, said the Vatican ought to report all abuse cases to the police.

"If teachers in a school commit abuse against children, we don't say it's for the school to resolve that issue," Sir Ken told Radio 4's Today programme.

Correction: Our story originally said the archbishop's letter to the Vatican "apparently received no response". On 31 March 2010 we corrected this to say: "There was no immediate response. Later an internal trial was initiated, but it was halted following a plea from Fr Murphy."

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