VATICAN CITY – Revelations that the Vatican halted the investigation of a Wisconsin priest accused of molesting some 200 deaf boys have eerie echoes in Italy, where 67 deaf men and women accused two dozen priests of raping and molesting children for years.
Only now – a year after the Italian case became public – is the Vatican directing the diocese to interview the victims to hear their testimony about the accusations, the Associated Press learned Thursday.
The two cases are the latest in a burgeoning scandal on both sides of the Atlantic. The office charged with disciplining clergy was long led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, and a church prosecution in the Wisconsin case was stopped after an appeal to Ratzinger.
The Vatican strongly defended Benedict on Thursday and denounced what it said was a concerted campaign to smear him and his aides.
Benedict’s actions have been marked by “transparency, firmness and severity in shedding light on the various cases of sexual abuse committed by priests and clergymen,” the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano said in a front-page article.
It lashed out at what it said was a “prevailing trend in the media” to ignore facts and spread an image of the Catholic Church “as if it were the only one responsible for sexual abuses.”
The Vatican was responding to the release of documents, first reported by the New York Times, that showed how the pope’s former office told a Wisconsin bishop to shut down a church trial against the Rev. Lawrence Murphy, a Milwaukee priest accused of molesting some 200 deaf boys from 1950 to 1975.
While the Vatican has not directly addressed the Italian abuse case, first reported as part of an AP investigation last September, it bears marked similarities to the allegations brought in Wisconsin.
Both involve some of society’s most vulnerable: deaf children.
In a signed statement last year, the 67 former pupils at a school for the deaf in Verona described sexual abuse, pedophilia and corporal punishment from the 1950s to the 1980s. They named 24 priests, brothers and lay religious men at the Antonio Provolo Institute for the Deaf.
While not all acknowledged being victims, 14 of the 67 wrote sworn statements and made videotapes detailing abuse, some for years, by priests and brothers of the Congregation for the Company of Mary.
The bishop of Verona, Monsignor Giuseppe Zenti, initially accused the former students of lying. However, after one of the accused lay religious men admitted to sexual relations with students, the bishop ordered an internal investigation. It found some abuse occurred.
Advocates for the victims, however, said the diocese investigation was fatally flawed because no one interviewed the former students.
Last summer, the diocese forwarded its files to the Vatican office that prosecutes sex crimes by clergy, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The Vatican studied the file but took no action until Feb. 15, when Cardinal William Levada instructed Zenti to interview the former students, said diocesan spokesman the Rev. Bruno Fasani.