A US Catholic archbishop warned a top Vatican office led by the future Pope Benedict XVI about a priest who may have molested up to 200 deaf boys but who was never defrocked, according to documents obtained by The New York Times.
The documents were provided by lawyers who filed lawsuits alleging the Archdiocese of Milwaukee didn't take sufficient action against Father Lawrence Murphy.
The priest, who died in 1998, worked at the former St John's School for the Deaf in St Francis from 1950 to 1975.
In 1996, then-Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert G Weakland sent letters about Fr Murphy to the Vatican office called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, led from 1981 to 2005 by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future pope.
Archbishop Weakland received no response, the newspaper said.
Eight months later, the second in command at the doctrinal office, Cardinal Tarciscio Bertone
— now the Vatican's secretary of state — told the Wisconsin bishops to begin secret disciplinary proceedings, stated the documents.
But Cardinal Bertone halted that process after Fr Murphy wrote to Cardinal Ratzinger saying he already had repented, was ailing and that the case's statute of limitations had run out, the Times reported.
The documents contain no response from Cardinal Ratzinger.
Archbishop Weakland also wrote to a different Vatican office in March 1997, saying an attorney's impending lawsuit would make the case public.
The documents emerged even as the Vatican deals with an ever-widening church abuse scandal sweeping several European countries.
Benedict last week issued an unprecedented letter to Ireland addressing the 16 years of church cover-up scandals here. But he has yet to say anything about his handling of a case in Germany known to have developed when, as cardinal, he oversaw the Munich Archdiocese from 1977 to 1982.
Father Federico Lombardi, a spokesman for the Vatican, told the Times in a written statement that the Vatican did not receive Fr Murphy's case until 1996, years after civil authorities investigated and dropped it.
Fr Lombardi also said Fr Murphy's poor health and a lack of more recent allegations were factors in the decision not to defrock him. He noted “the Code of Canon Law does not envision automatic penalties”.
The Times obtained the Murphy documents from Jeff Anderson and Mike Finnegan, attorneys for five men who sued the Milwaukee archdiocese alleging fraud.
The newspaper said the documents included letters between bishops and the Vatican, victims' affidavits, the handwritten notes of an expert on sexual disorders who interviewed Fr Murphy and minutes of a final meeting on the case at the Vatican.
Mr Anderson said he would e-mail the documents to The Associated Press.
He said in a phone interview last night that they show the Vatican was more concerned about possible publicity than about the abuse allegations.
“Instead of removing him from the priesthood, they just gave him a free pass,” Mr Anderson said. “In this case, it's a free pass at the highest level.”
After Fr Murphy was removed from the school in 1974, he went to northern Wisconsin, where he spent the rest of his life working in parishes, schools and, according to one lawsuit, a juvenile detention centre.
Previously released court documents show Archbishop Weakland oversaw a 1993 evaluation of Fr Murphy that concluded the priest likely assaulted up to 200 students at the school.
Archbishop Weakland resigned as archbishop in 2002 after admitting the archdiocese secretly paid $450,000 (£303,000) to a man who accused him of sexual abuse.