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, according to the Associated Press.
The two cases are the latest in a burgeoning abuse scandal on both sides of the Atlantic that now threatens to tarnish the papacy itself. 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. Today, The New York Times reported that the future pope was kept more closely apprised of a German priest's sex abuse case in 1980 than previous church statements have suggested.
The case of the German priest, the Rev Peter Hullermann, has acquired fresh relevance because it unfolded at a time when Cardinal Ratzinger, who was later put in charge of handling thousands of abuse cases on behalf of the Vatican, was in a position to refer the priest for prosecution, or at least to stop him from coming into contact with children, the Times said. Cardinal Ratzinger was copied on a memo that told him that a priest, whom he had approved sending to therapy in 1980 to overcome paedophilia, would return to pastoral work within days of beginning psychiatric treatment, the Times said. The priest was later convicted of molesting boys in another German parish.
Earlier this month, the Archdiocese of Munich placed full responsibility for the decision to allow the priest to resume his duties on Cardinal Ratzinger's deputy, the Rev Gerhard Gruber, the Times said. But the memo cited by the Times says that the future pope not only led a meeting on January 15, 1980, approving the transfer of the priest, but was also kept informed about the priest's reassignment, the newspaper reported.
The Vatican strongly defended Pope Benedict yesterday and denounced what it said was a concerted campaign to smear him and his aides for a problem not unique to the Catholic Church. Pope 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 - an image that does not correspond to reality."
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. Murphy died in 1998, two years after Ratzinger first learnt of the accusations, and more than 20 years after they came to the attention of the Milwaukee diocese. 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 for whom the admonition "never tell" is easy to enforce because they have difficulty communicating. And in both, the major priority of church officials grappling with how or whether to discipline accused predators appeared to be protecting the church from scandal. In a signed statement last year, the 67 former pupils at a school for the deaf in Verona described sexual abuse, paedophilia 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, at the hands of priests and brothers of the Congregation for the Company of Mary.
One victim, Alessandro Vantini, told the AP last year that priests sodomised him so relentlessly he came to feel "as if I were dead." "How could I tell my papa that a priest had sex with me?" Vantini, 59, said through a sign-language interpreter. "You couldn't tell your parents because the priests would beat you." 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, albeit a fraction of what had been alleged. Advocates for the victims, however, said the diocese investigation was fatally flawed because no one interviewed the former students.