MILWAUKEE — A neatly typed letter dated March 5, 1995, is addressed to the No. 2 man at the Vatican and recounts the story of a priest who preyed on deaf boys trapped in dormitories with no chance of escape.
The letter to Cardinal Angelo Sodano from one of the Rev. Lawrence Murphy's alleged victims is more evidence for those trying to learn what Vatican officials knew about abuse claims at St. John's School for the Deaf outside Milwaukee and when.
The document was revealed Thursday in yet another lawsuit aimed at the highest reaches of the Roman Catholic Church. It's also significant because it involves Sodano, a strong defender of Pope Benedict XVI's handling of the global clergy sexual abuse crisis and a man whose own record on a separate high-profile case has come under scrutiny.
The Vatican's U.S.-based attorney, Jeffrey Lena, said in a statement Thursday that the lawsuit was a publicity stunt with no merit and it rehashes theories already rejected by U.S. courts.
Murphy, who died in 1998, is accused of sexually abusing some 200 boys at the deaf school from 1950 to 1974. He was put on a leave of absence when the allegations were revealed in the early 1970s. The lawsuit claims Murphy was still allowed to serve in ministry and work with children in another Wisconsin diocese into the early 1990s.
The Vatican has previously said that diocese officials and civil authorities knew about the allegations some 20 years before the Vatican was ever notified. Because of that, Lena said, it cannot be held liable for Murphy's abuse.
Murphy's case drew renewed attention after the recent release of documents called into question the actions of a Vatican office led by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
Before the disclosure of the 1995 letter to Sodano, it was believed the Vatican first learned of allegations against Murphy in a July 1996 letter from Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland. That letter was sent to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the powerful Vatican office Ratzinger led from 1981 to his election as pope in 2005.
That office told the archbishop to move forward with a canonical trial against Murphy in March 1997. But then the office later urged a different course after receiving a letter from Murphy.
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, has said they suggested restricting Murphy from ministry rather than holding a full-blown canonical trial, citing Murphy's age, failing health, and a lack of further allegations.
The Wisconsin bishops ordered the proceedings halted, but in the end, Murphy died while still a defendant in a canonical trial, which could have led to Murphy being laicized, or stripped of the priesthood.
The defendants in the lawsuit are Ratzinger, Sodano, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone and the Holy See, identified as the state of the Vatican City. Bertone was Ratzinger's deputy at the time and is now the Vatican's secretary of state.
The lawsuit claims all three men knew about the allegations against Murphy and conspired to keep them secret. The lawsuit says the claims are based on "information and belief" but doesn't offer proof.
Sodano has long been accused in news reports in U.S. Catholic publications and other outlets of stalling a Vatican probe of the Rev. Marcial Maciel, the discredited founder of the Legionaries of Christ. The order has admitted that the late Maciel fathered at least one child and molested young seminarians.
Anderson, the plaintiff's lawyer, provided a copy of a receipt showing the registered letter to Sodano had reached the Vatican. The man wrote Sodano – then the Vatican's Secretary of State – again and got no response, according to Anderson.
Lena said that at the time, it was a local matter regarding a local priest and the victim had already communicated with the local bishop. Under those circumstances, Lena said it is "entirely appropriate" under canon law for the local diocese – not the Holy See – to respond.
Thursday's lawsuit is not the first to aim directly at the Vatican, even from Anderson. Another lawsuit of his remains open in Oregon and was recently allowed to move forward by a federal appeals court. In a separate Kentucky lawsuit, Vatican attorneys are mounting a defense they hope will shield the pope from having to answer attorneys' questions under oath.
Some legal experts questioned the Wisconsin lawsuit's prospects.
Nicholas Cafardi, a canon lawyer and former dean at the Duquesne University School of Law, said he doesn't believe Anderson can overcome sovereign immunity hurdles. He said the lawsuit describes the Roman Catholic Church as if it were an international commercial business and it's not.
"He's alleging an employment relationship between individual priests and the Holy See," Cafardi said. "I'm sorry, but diocesan priests in the United States are not employees of the Holy See ... If a court were to accept that, they would be creating a new Catholic Church, not the one that exists now."
But Washington, D.C., attorney Jonathan Levy, a specialist in international law who has tried suing the Vatican Bank over Holocaust claims, said Anderson could succeed in taking advantage of exceptions to sovereign immunity.
"I'd say he's got some new and exciting theories in there why the Vatican should be held responsible for its bad acts," Levy said.
Associated Press Writer Nicole Winfield in Vatican City, Patrick Condon in St. Paul, Minn., and Steve Karnowski in Minneapolis contributed to this report. Gorse reported from Denver.