Clergy sex abuse victims have staged a protest in Rome and planned protests in five US cities today.

The victims demanded the release of dozens of pages of secret church records showing that the world's top two Catholic officials insisted, for years in the 1990s, on keeping a serial US predator priest's case secret, fearing 'scandal'.

They urged Pope Benedict XVI to disclose how he and his office handled paedophile priests for years earlier this decade.

They will also urge anyone who saw, suspected or suffered clergy abuse crimes and cover-ups to come forward, get help, call police, expose wrongdoers, protect others and start healing.

The group staged a demonstration at 11am on the Via della Conciliazione, the street outside the entrance to St Peter's Square.

The protests come as Pope Benedict faces fresh claims of child sex abuse cover-up.

Yesterday, church files suggested he failed to take action against a US priest accused of molesting up to 200 deaf boys.

The documents obtained by The New York Times include correspondence between the accused priest, who worked at a school for deaf children in the US state of Wisconsin, and the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 1996, according to AFP.

Cardinal Ratzinger, then part of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was alerted to the accusations against Reverend Lawrence C Murphy in two letters written to him by the Wisconsin archbishop.

But he failed to respond to the letters and a secret canonical trial authorised by his deputy was halted after Rev Murphy wrote to the future pope begging that the proceedings be stopped, The New York Times said.

'I simply want to live out the time that I have left in the dignity of my priesthood,' Rev Murphy wrote to the future pope, according to files. 'I ask your kind assistance in this matter.'

The documents contain no response from Cardinal Ratzinger, and Rev Murphy died two years later still a priest, the newspaper said.

Rev Murphy worked at the school from 1950 to 1974 and despite multiple allegations against him, he was afterwards moved to another diocese where he was allowed to continue working freely with children, the paper reported.

The church files are included in four lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, brought by five men whose lawyers handed the long-secret documents to the newspaper over opposition from the Catholic Church.

The latest revelations come amid a wave of scandals over long-running sex abuse involving Catholic clergy in several other countries, including Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland and here.

The Wisconsin church documents, the Times said, show three successive archbishops in the state were informed that Rev Murphy was sexually abusing children but the incidents were never reported to authorities, either criminal or civil.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told the Times that the cases were 'tragic' and said Rev Murphy had abused 'particularly vulnerable' children.

But he also pointed to the late notification of the Vatican in 1996, and noted that years earlier authorities had investigated and dismissed the case.

Victims of Catholic priests say they are angered not only by the scale of abuse committed by clergy, but also by what they deem a pattern of complicity and complacency by senior Vatican officials.

They say high-ranking church officials failed to take abuse claims seriously and effectively covered up crimes, rather than punishing priests and admitting their abuses.