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The Pope was told about US abuse case but did nothing

The Vatican is under renewed pressure to explain its handling of child abuse scandals after documents emerged showing Pope Benedict XVI, decided not to defrock an American priest accused of abusing 200 deaf children.

Lawyers acting on behalf of victims in the United States released a series of letters from two Wisconsin bishops asking the Vatican for permission to press ahead with a church trial against Reverend Lawrence Murphy.

Many of the letters detailed correspondence between the bishops and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the influential Vatican body tasked with investigating abuse cases that was run by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger until he became pontiff in 2005.

Murphy had been accused of a string of sex attacks throughout the 60s and 70s and, although no criminal charges had been brought against him, the Catholic Church in Wisconsin was under pressure to strip him of his priestly duties.

Murphy, who worked at St John's School for the Deaf in Milwaukee from 1950 to 1974, andadmitted to many of the abuse allegations.

Initially the Congregation recommended a secret disciplinary hearing for the priest, but the following year it backtracked after Cardinal Ratzinger received a personal appeal from Murphy begging for clemency.

He died a year later in 1998 and was buried in full priestly vestments. The Congregation did not contact the police about the allegations.

The letters are both enlightening and potentially embarrassing for the Vatican because they illuminate the secretive workings of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and the man who ran it for more than 20 years before becoming Pope.

One of the Congregation's tasks is to investigate all child abuse scandals in the Church, but much of the work it has done on paedophile priests remains shrouded in secrecy.

American victims of clerical abuse rounded on the Vatican yesterday, criticising its handling of their complaints and calling on the Pope to account for his time as head of the Congregation.

Four victims from the Survivor Network of those Abused by Priests (Snap) travelled to Rome yesterday to hold a demonstration in St Peter's Square calling on the Vatican to open up all its files on paedophile priests and defrock anyone found to have abused a child.

"The goal of Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, was to keep this secret," said Peter Isely, the Milwaukee-based director of Snap. "We need to know why [the Pope] did not let us know about [Murphy] and why he didn't let the police know about him and why he did not condemn him and why he did not take his collar away from him."

The group handed out photocopies of the letters between the bishops and the Vatican on Murphy.

Shortly afterwards they were stopped by police officers who confiscated their passports and led the group off for questioning.

The Catholic Church is currently battling a series of historical clerical abuse scandals that has emerged in Europe in the past two months.

The Pope has already been personally dragged into the scandals. Survivor groups are angry that the leader of the world's Roman Catholics penned a now-controversial 2001 order handed down to churches around the world, reminding them to investigate abuse allegations internally before deciding whether to report them to the authorities.

The Vatican yesterday hit back at allegations in Milwaukee insisting that there had been no attempt to cover up Murphy's actions.

The Vatican spokesman issued a statement noting that the case had only reached the Vatican in 1996, that Murphy died two years later, and that there was nothing in the church's handling of the matter that precluded any civil action from being taken against him.

Earlier in the day one of the Pope's top aides repeated the often-voiced Vatican line that the new rash of abuse allegations coming out of Europe and North America are part of an ongoing "conspiracy" against the Church.

"There is a well-organised plan with a very clear aim," said Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins.