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Leroy Burnell

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.

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 that 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 still was allowed to serve in ministry and work with children in another Wisconsin diocese into the early 1990s.

Before the disclosure of the 1995 letter to Sodano, it was thought 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 the office later urged a different course after receiving a letter from Murphy.

Jeff 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 again and got no response, according to Anderson.

Lena said that at the time, it was a local matter regarding a local priest and that the victim already had communicated with the local bishop. Lena said it is "entirely appropriate" under canon law for the local diocese -- not the Holy See -- to respond.