Pope Benedict XVI -- or at least his immediate subordinate in his previous role as a cardinal -- was made aware of an attempt to cover up the record of a Milwaukee priest reassigned to the Diocese of Superior after sexually molesting as many as 200 boys at a school for the deaf over 20 years, church records reviewed by the News Tribune show.
The Reverend Lawrence Murphy, who died in 1998, was reassigned to the Superior church in 1974 after allegations of abuse going back to 1950 at St. John's School for the Deaf in St. Francis, Wis.
Church records reviewed by the News Tribune show he then spent time working in the Superior Diocese at St. Anne's in Boulder Junction, Wis., and other parishes until 1994.
Murphy has been accused of soliciting sex from children in the confessional and in the middle of the night in their dormitory or his bedroom.
At Murphy's Aug. 28, 1998, funeral, Bishop Richard Sklba of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee eulogized the priest. Sklba acknowledged his misdeeds, saying: "But not everything he did was good. I say that not to offend or hurt, but because it's true. Painful accusations were made. ... The amount of damage became clear and ... Father Murphy was in the process of writing letters of personal apology. That matter hadn't yet been resolved when he died."
The church had intended the funeral to be closed, but Murphy's family invited members of the public. That sparked correspondence between then-Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee and Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, the number two to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, at the Vatican's Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.
The congregation is the arm of the church that oversees Catholic doctrine. Bertone is now the Vatican Secretary of State.
"We thought the family had agreed to a private funeral Mass," Weakland wrote Bertone on Sept. 2, 1998, "[but] they did just the opposite, defied our agreement, invited people from the deaf community to attend."
That same day, Weakland wrote to the Papal Nuncio, the Vatican's ambassador to the United States, adding: "The family never took seriously the multiple accusations of sexual abuse of boys ... that have been reported to us and verified."
Ratzinger's office was involved, Weakland wrote, because the abuse "also involved confessional circumstances" -- where the "sacramental seal" demands that activities involving confession be kept secret under canon law. That law is enforced by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.
On Oct. 16 that year, Weakland recapped the events and told of the Vatican's response, writing to a nun whose name has been redacted: "I talked in Rome at great length how to handle all of this. ... To protect Father Murphy's good name I had to do what I did and keep this as quiet as possible."
The allegations did not become public until 2006. The documents were made public as part of a lawsuit against the church for abuse by Murphy.
Weakland did not specifically mention Ratzinger, but two other documents, to be posted on the Web site bishop-accountability.org, tell of direct correspondence to him, both by Weakland and Murphy himself.
"There's a letter on July 17, 1996, from Weakland to Ratzinger -- two years before Murphy dies," Terry McKiernan, president of Bishop Accountability, told the News Tribune from suburban Boston.
"He's informing Ratizinger because he's assuming Ratzinger will want to be made aware of these kinds of cases."
In Murphy's letter to Ratzinger, McKiernan said, "He's asking for an investigation against him by the Diocese of Superior to be abated and says, 'I am 72 years of age. ... I have repented and lived peacefully in northern Wisconsin for 24 years. I simply want to live out the time that I have left.' "
Early Thursday, a Vatican spokeswoman responded to a request for comment to the News Tribune with a prepared statement from the Rev. Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office, calling the case "tragic."
"By sexually abusing children who were hearing-impaired, Father Murphy violated the law and, more importantly, the sacred trust that his victims had placed in him," Lombardi said in the statement.
"During the mid-1970s, some of Father Murphy's victims reported his abuse to civil authorities, who investigated him at that time; however, according to news reports, that investigation was dropped. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was not informed of the matter until some twenty years later.
"It has been suggested that a relationship exists between the application of Crimen sollicitationis [a priest using the confessional to solicit sex] and the non-reporting of child abuse to civil authorities in this case. In fact, there is no such relationship. Indeed, contrary to some statements that have circulated in the press, neither Crimen nor the Code of Canon Law ever prohibited the reporting of child abuse to law enforcement authorities."
The spokeswoman said Lombardi was not taking calls and declined to answer whether, in his previous role, Pope Benedict ever instructed any church officials to contact any law enforcement authorities in the Murphy case or any other.
Pope Benedict in recent days has sought to contain the priest abuse scandal rocking Ireland and also is being questioned about his handling of the Rev. Peter Hullermann, a priest under his charge when he was archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1982.
On Wednesday, Munich Archdiocese spokesman Bernhard Kellner said a new person has come forward claiming to have been abused in 1998 by Hullermann, the Associated Press reported. The news agency said Hullermann had been accused of abusing boys in Essen, western Germany, in the 1970s when Ratzinger approved his 1980 transfer to Munich to receive psychological treatment for pedophilia.