VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The Vatican on Thursday angrily attacked the media over its reporting of sexual abuse of children by priests, saying there was an "ignoble attempt" to smear Pope Benedict "at any cost."
The editorial in a Vatican newspaper came on a day abuse victims protested near St Peter's Square to demand the pope open files on pedophile clerics and defrock "predator priests," and a cardinal spoke of a "conspiracy" against the church.
"The prevalent tendency in the media is to ignore the facts and stretch interpretations with the aim of spreading the picture of the Catholic Church as the only one responsible for sexual abuse, something which does not correspond to reality," the Vatican newspaper said.
There was "clearly an ignoble attempt to strike at Pope Benedict and his closest aides at any cost," it said.
The editorial challenged a New York Times report about the case of Rev. Lawrence Murphy, accused of sexually abusing up to 200 deaf boys in the United States from the 1950s to the 1970s.
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 had been informed of the case.
Ratzinger's deputy first advised a secret disciplinary trial but reversed that in 1998 after Murphy appealed directly to Ratzinger for clemency. The priest died later that year.
The Vatican newspaper said: "There was no cover-up in the case of Father Murphy." The Vatican said earlier he was not disciplined because church laws do not require automatic punishment.
The report came amid mounting allegations of sexual abuse by priests in Europe and pressure on bishops, mostly in Ireland, to resign for failing to report cases to civil authorities.
On Thursday morning, four leaders of the U.S.-based Survivor Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), all of whom were sexually abused by priests, held a protest and news conference outside the Vatican.
Holding up photos of themselves as children and signs reading "Stop the Secrecy Now," they demanded the pope open files on pedophile clerics worldwide and immediately defrock all "predator priests."
Italian police took their passports and led them away for questioning. They were held for two hours and later released, one of the group said.
The scandal of alleged cover-ups of abuse has come perilously close to the pope himself as victims say they want to know how he handled cases before his election in 2005.
There have been allegations of a cover-up of 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.
"The pope has said he is sorry," said John Pilmaier, a SNAP leader who was abused 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 he was for zero tolerance of abuse, but could understand why some bishops covered up cases 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 lawsuits.
Editing by Andrew Roche