Leading advocates for victims of clergy sex abuse are directing their criticism beyond U.S. Roman Catholic bishops to the highest levels of the church. They're now accusing Vatican leaders of hiding the scope of the molestation problem worldwide -- and demanding reform.
Many church experts say complaints of a Rome cover-up are baseless, meant only to gain advantage in the hundreds of still-pending abuse cases against U.S. dioceses. Millions of dollars in potential settlements are at stake.
But advocates say the revelations that many American bishops sheltered offenders in their own dioceses are just one small part of what they call long-term, systemic wrongdoing.
"The Vatican has been vitally involved," said Richard Sipe, a psychologist and former monk who researches sexuality in the priesthood and advises people suing dioceses. "The Vatican is in the know and has documented its knowledge throughout the centuries."
Sipe, the Rev. Thomas Doyle and former monk Patrick Wall -- all well-known victim advocates -- have compiled a more than 300-page document claiming Vatican officials have known about sex abuse by priests going all the way back to the fourth century and have consistently kept quiet about it.
Jason Berry, whose reporting in the 1980s first drew national attention to clergy sex abuse, published a book this year titled "Vows of Silence, The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II."
Co-authored with Gerald Renner, it contends Vatican leaders blocked an inquiry into sex abuse claims against the Rev. Marcial Maciel, the prominent founder of the Legionaries of Christ. Maciel says he's innocent.
And another sex abuse lawsuit was filed last month naming the Vatican as a defendant -- this time in Kentucky. Separately, Minneapolis attorney Jeff Anderson, who specializes in clergy abuse lawsuits, has filed two others that target officials in Rome.
No one has ever successfully sued the Vatican over molestation and some legal experts have dismissed such lawsuits as publicity stunts. The Vatican is a sovereign nation, and therefore considered to have diplomatic immunity from lawsuits.