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 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.
The Vatican strongly defended Benedict on Thursday and denounced what it said was a concerted campaign to smear him and his aides for a problem that Rome insists is not unique to the Catholic Church.
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 learned 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, 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, 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 sodomized 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.
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. It was headed for years by Ratzinger, who issued a 2001 directive that requires bishops to report suspected clerical abuse cases to the Vatican, but makes no mention of calling police.
The Vatican studied the file but took no action until Feb. 15, when Cardinal William Levada instructed Zenti to interview the former students to determine if any action should be taken against the priests, diocesan spokesman the Rev. Bruno Fasani told the AP.
In his letter to the Verona church authorities, Levada said Ratzinger's old office, which he now heads, had reviewed the files about the alleged abuse and "considers it opportune to proceed" with interviews of the former students.
Fasani said the diocese maintained that it did not interview the alleged victims because they never made a formal complaint to the bishop. The diocese also said it didn't know how to contact them, even though they are all members of a Verona deaf association with ties to the church-run school.
Marco Lodi Rizzini, a spokesman for the accusers, scoffed at the suggestion that the diocese didn't know how to reach the former students. He said he spoke with Zenti twice about the accusations and sent the victims' testimonies about the abuse to the diocese last year.
He said the former students were more than happy to speak to investigators. "Better late than never."
Fasani said the diocese was now forming a team to conduct the interviews after receiving instructions from Levada.
"This is a shameful thing. We never received a formal complaint," he insisted. "It was never formally presented to us."
Vantini and other alleged Verona victims are due to appear on state-run RAI television on Friday to tell their stories.
Benedict also has come under pressure over a case dating back to his time as archbishop of Munich, in his native Germany, three decades ago.
The Munich archdiocese has said that Ratzinger was involved in a 1980 decision to allow a priest who had been accused of abusing boys, the Rev. Peter Hullermann, to be transferred there for therapy.
However, Ratzinger's then-deputy, Gerhard Gruber, said earlier this month he took full responsibility for a subsequent decision to allow the priest to return to pastoral duties. Hullermann was convicted in 1986 of sexual abuse during a later posting.
The New York Times reported Friday that the future pope was copied in on a memo saying that the priest would quickly be returned to pastoral work, and that church officials could not rule out that Ratzinger read it.