MILWAUKEE – A neatly typed letter dated March 5, 1995, is addressed to the No. 2 man at the Vatican and recounts the story of a priest who preyed on deaf boys trapped in dormitories with no chance of escape.
The letter to Cardinal Angelo Sodano from one of the Rev. Lawrence Murphy’s alleged victims is more evidence for those trying to learn what Vatican officials knew about abuse claims at St. John’s School for the Deaf outside Milwaukee and when.
The document was revealed Thursday in yet another lawsuit aimed at the highest reaches of the Roman Catholic Church. It’s also significant because it involves Sodano, a strong defender of Pope Benedict XVI’s handling of the global clergy sexual abuse crisis and a man whose own record on a separate high-profile case has come under scrutiny.
The Vatican’s U.S.-based attorney, Jeffrey Lena, said in a statement Thursday that the lawsuit was a publicity stunt with no merit and it rehashes theories already rejected by U.S. courts.
Murphy, who died in 1998, is accused of sexually abusing some 200 boys at the deaf school from 1950 to 1974. He was put on a leave of absence when the allegations were revealed in the early 1970s. The lawsuit claims Murphy was still allowed to serve in ministry and work with children in another Wisconsin diocese into the early 1990s.
The Vatican has previously said that diocese officials and civil authorities knew about the allegations some 20 years before the Vatican was ever notified. Because of that, Lena said, it cannot be held liable for Murphy’s abuse.
Before the disclosure of the 1995 letter to Sodano, it was believed the Vatican first learned of allegations against Murphy in a July 1996 letter from Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland.
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, has said they suggested restricting Murphy from ministry rather than holding a full-blown canonical trial, citing Murphy’s age, failing health, and a lack of further allegations.
The Wisconsin bishops ordered the proceedings halted, but in the end, Murphy died while still a defendant in a canonical trial, which could have led to Murphy being laicized, or stripped of the priesthood.
Jeff Anderson, the plaintiff’s lawyer, provided a copy of a receipt showing the registered letter to Sodano had reached the Vatican. The man wrote Sodano – then the Vatican’s secretary of state – again and got no response, according to Anderson.