Victims of sexual abuse by priests demonstrated at the Vatican on Thursday demanding that Pope Benedict open up files on pedophile Catholic clerics.
The demonstration came as a leading cardinal denounced what he called a "conspiracy" to discredit the Catholic Church and said he could understand why some bishops hushed up cases of pedophilia so as not to harm the Church's good name.
Four leaders of the U.S.-based Survivor Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), all of whom were sexually abused by priests, including being raped and sodomized, held up photos of themselves as children and signs reading "Stop the Secrecy Now."
"I would ask the pope if he would please open up the files from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and turn over all the information to the police," said Barbara Blaine, the president of SNAP.
She was referring to the Department once headed by the pope when he was a cardinal, which judges cases of sexual abuse.
"I would also ask him to make a public order to all bishops across the globe that all predator priests must be removed from ministry immediately," she said minutes before police took away the SNAP leaders' passports and led them away for questioning.
A scandal of alleged cover-ups of sexual abuse of children by priests has been convulsing the Roman Catholic Church in Europe with even more intensity than a similar one that hit the United States eight years ago.
But this time it has come perilously close to the pope himself as victims groups have said they want to know how he handled cases before his election in 2005.
There have been allegations of a cover-up of sexual abuse in Munich when he was the city's archbishop from 1977 to 1981. Victims groups have called for information on his decisions when he headed the Vatican doctrinal department from 1981 to 2005.
SORRY NOT ENOUGH
"The pope has said he is sorry," said John Pilmaier, who was abused when he was in second grade more than 30 years ago.
"But what the pope will not admit is what he knew and what the people inside the Vatican knew. He owes it to every survivor and their families to be honest with us and explain what happened behind those walls, what was covered up, and to finally tell us the truth," he said.
At a breakfast meeting with reporters, one of the pope's top aides, Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, denounced what he called "a conspiracy" against the Church.
"This is a pretext for attacking the Church," he said. "There is a well-organized plan with a very clear aim," he said, without spelling out who was behind it.
Saraiva Martins said that while he was in favor of zero tolerance now, he could understand why some bishops covered up cases of child abuse in the past.
"We should not be too scandalized if some bishops knew about it but kept it secret. This is what happens in every family, you don't wash your dirty laundry in public," he said.
He also accused lawyers of "wanting to make a lot of money" by digging up decades-old cases and filing law suits.
Holding up pictures of American children who were abused by priests, the SNAP leaders spoke of the case of Rev. Lawrence Murphy of Milwaukee, who was accused of sexually abusing as many as 200 deaf boys.
The New York Times reported on Thursday that the Vatican did not defrock him in the late 1990s -- when the current pope was head of the office dealing with abuse -- despite receiving clear warnings from bishops that his case was serious and could embarrass the Church.
Among 25 internal Church documents the Times posted on its website was a 1996 letter about Murphy to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then the Vatican's top doctrinal official and now Pope Benedict, showing he was informed of his case.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said he was not disciplined because Church laws do not require automatic punishment.