The Pope's New Outrage

As more emerges about the pope's role in a sex-abuse cover-up involving more than 200 deaf boys, the Vatican is in crisis mode. Barbie Latza Nadeau talks to victims who still can't get heard.

03.26.10 8:19 AM ET

The seedy Vatican pedophilia scandal that has rocked Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland for the last few weeks has just taken an even more lurid turn. Allegations that a Wisconsin priest sexually abused as many as 200 deaf children over the course of 24 years are compounded by the fact that his superiors all but ignored the travesty. And worse still, a paper trail between the Wisconsin diocese and the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith shows that the current pope was well aware of the cover up.

The priest, Lawrence C. Murphy, who was head of the St. John’s School for the Deaf in St. Francis Wisconsin, even wrote directly to the man who now leads the Catholic church, appealing for leniency. The letter, published on The New York Times website, is addressed to “His Eminence Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger,” now Pope Benedict XVI. In the letter, Father Murphy pleads for leniency based on the fact that the church’s statue of limitations had run out. “I simply want to live out the time that I have left in the dignity of my priesthood,” he wrote to the man who is now Pope. “I ask your kind assistance in this matter.”

The Wisconsin victims described how Murphy abused them in his car, in the confessional, and even at Father Murphy’s mother’s private home.

Big Fat Story: The Vatican Fires Back The Vatican did order that Murphy be tried in a secret Vatican tribunal, but after the elderly priest appealed to Ratzinger, the investigation was mysteriously dropped. Murphy was never defrocked, and died in 1998 with a full Catholic funeral and full Vatican honors as a priest. “I wish I knew what this pope was thinking,” Barbara Blaine, head of Survivor’s Network for those Abused by Priests, told The Daily Beast in Rome on Thursday. She and other survivors of abuse held a small protest outside the walls of Vatican City, passing out copies of photos of predator priests and letters from victims, pleading for help from the Vatican. “What did he think this lack of action would accomplish? These were at-risk kids. They were deaf kids who had been taken from their homes to be cared for by the church. It was outrageous.”

Blaine and her group, which includes an abuse survivor from a different Wisconsin parish, were forcibly removed from near Vatican City by Roman police after about 20 minutes for protesting without a permit. Blaine says they were taken in squad cars to a local police station where they were detained for nearly three hours. The police confiscated the posters and letters they were handing out and let them go. Protests were held in Chicago, Milwaukee and other US cities, as well. The group will hold similar events in Munich over the weekend. “I’m still hopeful that this pope will do the right thing,” Blaine says. She and other survivors would like the church to lift the veil of secrecy and turn over criminal child investigations to the local authorities the moment they are reported, rather than treating accusations as an internal church affair. “Criminal investigations should not be the business of the Catholic church.”

In fact, the underlying theme of this sordid scandal is anger at the Vatican hierarchy for obstructing criminal investigations by local authorities by not letting victims report the crimes. Victims of child abuse are generally among the most protected victims in society when the abuse is at the hands of teachers and parents. But church victims tend to first report the abuse to the church authorities rather than to police. The offending priests are then the ones who benefit from protection. In many cases, church officials make victims sign secrecy waivers and promise not to report the abuse to civil authorities. Italian religious columnist Enzo Mazzi says that the problem is the system. “Why this lack of transparency into the obvious distortion of facts in the church as if pedophilia only affects them?”

The scandal continues to spread. In Italy, at a diocese in Verona, 24 priests have been accused of sexually and physically abusing 67 students of a school for the deaf there. In an interview with the Associated Press, Alessandro Vantini described the sodomy as so brutal and relentless that he felt “as if I were dead.” He went on to say that he and other students were threatened or beaten if they told their parents. Stories like Vantini’s are not unique. The Wisconsin victims described how Murphy abused them in his car, in the confessional, and even at Father Murphy’s mother’s private home.

As more victims come forward, the Vatican continues to distance itself from their pleas. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, has issued a series of dry statements explaining that it is not the Vatican’s fault. "During the mid-1970s, some of Father Murphy's victims reported his abuse to civil authorities," Lombardi says, blaming the local police for inaction. "The Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith was not informed of the matter until some 20 years later."

But when they were informed, as evidenced in the paper trail uncovered by The New York Times, they didn’t do enough to stop it. “We believe that if Pope Benedict XVI was sincere, he would be exposing the truth and helping victims,” Blaine told the Daily Beast. “He would be opening up the files to find out what really happened. Instead he is making strong efforts to protect the reputation of the priests at the expense of the victims.”

Barbie Latza Nadeau, author of the Beast Book Angel Face, about Amanda Knox, has reported from Italy for Newsweek Magazine since 1997. She also writes for CNN Traveller, Budget Travel Magazine and Frommer's.