March 14, 2010

The "good news" for the Church, I suppose, is that its centuries-old habits of secrecy mean that the real story is unlikely to become public.

And the bad news? Because the real story is unlikely to become public, the suspicions and whispers will continue to undermine the Church's moral authority and credibility - and without those things, what do they have left? Time to come clean:

The Vatican sprang to Pope Benedict XVI's defense Saturday amid accusations that he tried to hush up reports of clergy sexual abuse and failed to adequately punish an offending priest in his native Germany before becoming pontiff.

Senior Vatican officials denounced the allegations as part of a smear campaign against the pope, who they say is committed to confronting the problem and cracking down on abusers.

"The accusations are failed attempts to involve the Holy Father" in the sexual abuse scandals, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said.

But controversy continued to rage in Germany over a serially abusive priest who was returned to a pastoral position during the pope's tenure as archbishop in the Munich region about 20 years ago. Church officials in the area acknowledge that the decision to reassign the priest was wrong but insist that it was not made by Benedict, who was then Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger.

"These events which are spoken of have been amply clarified by the archdiocese of Munich," Lombardi said in a brief phone interview.

The scandal in the pontiff's homeland is one of a wave of emerging crises for the Roman Catholic Church in Europe. A major scandal involving sexual and physical abuse by priests and nuns in Ireland has seriously undermined the church's authority in that predominantly Roman Catholic nation. More recently, complaints of abuse have surfaced in the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland.

In Saturday's edition of Avvenire, a newspaper for the Italian bishops' conference, a Vatican official revealed that over the last decade, the Holy See had investigated 3,000 clerics for alleged abuse, in cases going back as far as 50 years.

Msgr. Charles J. Scicluna, the Vatican's prosecutor in incidents involving sexual abuse of minors, said that most of the cases were from the United States. But in 2009, the U.S. accounted for only 25% of all new cases reported worldwide.

Benedict, while he was still a cardinal, issued a directive in 2001 telling bishops to keep abuse cases confidential, which critics say contributed to a culture of silence and coverup.

But Lombardi, in an interview with the Vatican's radio station, rejected that conclusion, saying that the pope "wanted an absolutely rigorous and transparent line on the pedophilia scandals in the church" and was committed to "confront, judge and adequately punish such crimes under ecclesiastical rules."

And in the spirit of that openness, the Vatican says the Pope is being "set up":

Father Federico Lombardi appeared to suggest in an interview on Vatican Radio that the pope, who also has strong links to the city of Regensburg, was the victim of a plot.

"It's rather clear that in recent days there have been people who have searched – with notable tenacity – in Regensburg and Munich for elements to personally involve the holy father in the question of the abuses," Lombardi said. "To any objective observer it's clear that these attempts have failed."

The Vatican has been appalled in recent days by a flood of allegations of priestly sex abuse in Germany, Holland, Austria and even Italy.

Today, the pope's former diocese rushed out a statement to pre-empt a story in tomorrow's edition of the Munich-based daily Süddeutsche Zeitung. It said that when Joseph Ratzinger was the city's archbishop he had agreed that a priest from another diocese should undergo therapy at a rectory. The records suggested that "it was known then that this therapy should probably be carried out due to sexual relations with children". But instead of sending him for therapy, the statement said, the diocese's then vicar-general, Gerhard Gruber, assigned him to a parish where at least one child was subsequently abused.

"Gruber takes full responsibility for the wrong decisions," the diocese said.

Are they telling the truth - or is Gruber being asked to fall on his sword? People no longer believe the Catholic Church without question, and that will inevitably weaken their influence.

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