By Alex Tresniowski
April 12, 2010 12:00 PM

He was 12 years old when Fr. Lawrence Murphy called him into a coat closet at St. John’s School for the Deaf in St. Francis, Wis. It was there, recalls Arthur Budzinski, that the priest molested him. After that, he’d see Fr. Murphy come into the boys’ dorm room at night “and put his hands underneath their blankets,” says Budzinski, now 61. “The light would glow from the red ‘Exit’ sign and you could see him. I’d pull my blanket over my eyes and cry.”

Now Budzinski-one of as many as 200 deaf boys allegedly molested by Fr. Murphy from 1950 to 1974-is accusing the very head of the Catholic Church of doing much the same thing: knowing a horrible truth and yet looking away. In what is becoming one of the most serious sex scandals to ever rock the church, the allegations against Fr. Murphy-as well as charges against priests in Ireland and Germany-have all been linked to Pope Benedict XVI, who oversaw abuse claims as head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1981 to 2005.

In Murphy’s case, letters obtained by lawyers for his victims suggest the Pope-then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger-was told of the abuse by several bishops, yet chose not to defrock Murphy or pursue a church trial (see box). “This was a serial predator being reported by three U.S. bishops,” says David Clohessy, director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. “If Ratzinger hid those crimes, how many others is he hiding?”

Vatican officials insist Ratzinger did more than any other clergyman to address the problem of pedophile priests, and went easy on Fr. Murphy because Murphy “was elderly and in very poor health” with “no allegations of abuse…reported in over 20 years,” said Papal spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi. Murphy died in 1998, but his victims-five of whom have filed lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee seeking monetary compensation-see Ratzinger’s mercy as nothing more than a cover-up. “What Fr. Murphy did was a crime,” says Gary Smith, 60, a retired Texas postal worker who claims Murphy abused him dozens of times. “He should have gone to jail.”

Several former St. John’s students interviewed by PEOPLE remember Fr. Murphy as a friendly figure, popular with parents and children because he knew sign language. But they also say he preyed on the most vulnerable boys, such as those with no parents, or parents who didn’t sign. “I was sent to his office, and he told me to take my clothes off and play with myself,” says Dean Weissmuller, 51, a former postal worker from Phoenix. “Then he did it for me. And at the end he said, ‘Amen.'” Murphy eventually admitted to a social worker that he molested some students, but claimed “it was sex education for them,” according to the social worker’s 1993 report.

His victims hope the scandal pressures the Church to get tough on pedophile priests. But such a victory would only partially mitigate the damage Fr. Murphy has caused. Arthur Budzinski, a Wal-Mart assembly specialist, has been haunted by the abuse; he saw his marriage fall apart because of his anger and thought about killing himself. “It destroyed my life,” he says, tearing up as his daughter Gigi, 26-interpreting his sign language and hearing parts of his story for the first time-starts to cry too. “I wish it never happened to me. I wish I was normal. He stole my soul.”

Still, while Budzinski has lost his faith in the church, he has not given up on God-or on seeing justice served. The Vatican “didn’t care about the children, they only cared about the priests,” he says. “But people are starting to wake up to this now, and it’s about time.”