MILWAUKEE — A federal U.S. judge is asking the Vatican to cooperate in serving the pope and two other top officials with court papers that stem from decades-old allegations of sexual abuse by a priest in Wisconsin.
The request is an incremental step in a lawsuit that accuses the officials of conspiring to keep the allegations against the Milwaukee priest quiet. The Vatican is not obliged to comply with the request.
When faced with similar requests the Vatican has made service difficult, time-consuming and expensive by insisting, for example, that documentation be translated into Latin, one of the Vatican's official languages.
Mike Finnegan, the attorney representing the Chicago-based plaintiff, said Friday he's not holding out hope that the Vatican reverses course and begins to cooperate now.
"Based on what they've done in other cases, I don't expect them to do the right thing," he said. "I expect more delay and obstruction."
Jeffrey Lena, the Vatican's U.S.-based attorney, said he hadn't seen the court request and couldn't comment on whether the Vatican would comply with it.
The lawsuit, filed in April in U.S. federal court, names as defendants Joseph Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict XVI; Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, and his predecessor, Cardinal Angelo Sodano.
It claims the three men knew about allegations of sexual abuse at a Milwaukee-area school for the deaf, and called off internal punishment of the accused priest. The Rev. Lawrence Murphy, who died in 1998, was accused of sexually abusing some 200 boys at the school from 1950 to 1974.
Lena has called the lawsuit a publicity stunt and said it rehashes theories already rejected by U.S. courts.
"This is a minor procedural step by plaintiff's lawyers in a meritless lawsuit," he said. He added that it refers to abuse that occurred in the 1970s, which he said was more than 20 years before the Holy See first learned of the priest's actions.
The Vatican has argued that it isn't liable for clerical sex-abuse cases because according to canon law and the structure of the Catholic Church, bishops – not Rome – are responsible for disciplining pedophile priests.
Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland had complained about Murphy in a 1996 letter to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the powerful Vatican office then-Cardinal 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 1997. But after the office received a letter from Murphy it urged a different course, citing Murphy's advanced age, failing health and a lack of further allegations.
The Wisconsin bishops ordered the proceedings halted. In the end, Murphy died while still a defendant in a canonical trial, which could have led to him being removed from the clerical state.
The court order requesting the Vatican's cooperation in the lawsuit was signed Sept. 24 by U.S. District Judge Rudolph Randa. It was released Friday by the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.
"The court requests the assistance described herein as necessary in the interests of justice," Randa wrote.
Plaintiffs in two other U.S. cases have also sued the Vatican under similar arguments. The three plaintiffs in the Kentucky case dismissed their case last month, and a case in Oregon is ongoing.
SNAP spokesman Arthur Budzinski called the Wisconsin court order a "hopeful sign." He said he hoped it would lead to the pope testifying under oath about what he knew about Murphy's actions.
Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.