Pope sees sex scandal as test
Vatican City – Pope Benedict XVI sees the priestly sex scandal as a “test for him and the church”, his spokesperson said on Wednesday, as bishops around Europe used Holy Week’s solemn call for penitence to announce new pledges of transparency in dealing with the abuse of children.
Swiss bishops urged victims to consider filing criminal complaints. German bishops opened a hot line for victims. Danish bishops launched an inquiry into decades-old claims.
And Austria’s senior cleric, Cardinal Christophe Schoenborn, admitted church guilt as he presided over a service for victims billed as a sign of repentance.
“Thank you for breaking your silence,” Schoenborn told the victims. “A lot has been broken open. There is less looking away. But there is still a lot to do.”
A week after Pope Benedict XVI excoriated Irish bishops for gross errors of judgement in handling cases of priests who rape children, European bishops one after another admitted to mistakes, reached out to victims and promised to act when they learn about abuse.
Their mea culpas and pledges to be more open and co-operative with police echoed American bishops’ initial responses when the US priest-abuse scandal emerged in 2002.
They come amid mounting public outrage over a new wave of abuse claims across Europe and what victims say has been a pattern of cover-up by bishops and the Vatican itself.
And they were all announced during the most solemn week of the church’s liturgical calendar. As the Swiss bishops noted on Wednesday, Holy Week is a period of penance, when the faithful are supposed to admit their guilt, examine wrongdoing, find ways to improve and ask God and people for forgiveness.
Benedict himself was experiencing a Holy Week of “humility and penitence”, Vatican spokesperson the Reverend Federico Lombardi told The Associated Press.
Asked how Benedict was responding to the scandal swirling around the Vatican, Lombardi replied: “The pope is a person of faith. He sees this as a test for him and the church.”
Lombardi stressed, though, that the 82-year-old pontiff was holding up fine physically during the gruelling Holy Week schedule.
Benedict is to celebrate an evening Holy Thursday service in which he will wash the feet of 12 priests in a symbol of humility. The service commemorates Jesus’ washing the feet of his 12 apostles before the Last Supper.
After presiding over the Good Friday Way of the Cross commemoration at Rome’s torch-lit Coliseum, Benedict will celebrate a late-night Easter Vigil on Saturday and then Easter on Sunday, when the faithful commemorate Jesus’ resurrection – a time of rebirth and renewal.
On Wednesday, the church offered its highest-level official response yet to one of the most explosive recent stories regarding sex abuse, on the church’s decision in the 1990s not to defrock a Wisconsin priest accused of molesting deaf boys.
Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said in an article posted on the Vatican’s website that a lengthy trial for the Reverend Lawrence Murphy would have been “useless” because the priest was dying by the time his diocese initiated a canonical trial.
Levada was critical of The New York Times, which first published details of the decision last week.
He said the paper wrongly used the case to find fault in Benedict’s handling of abuse cases. A Times spokesperson defended the articles and said no one has cast doubt on the reported facts.
While clerical abuse has for years roiled the church in the US and Ireland, mainland Europe woke up to the issue in its backyard earlier this year with the first wave of reports from Benedict’s native Germany that boys had been abused at a church-run school.
Since then, hundreds of people have come forward with claims of abuse – most dating back decades – in Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands and elsewhere.
The measures enacted and promised to date in Europe still fall short of the zero-tolerance policy adopted by US bishops after the clerical abuse scandal exploded in 2002.
The US policy, approved by the Vatican as church law in the US, bars credibly accused priests from any public church work while claims against them are under investigation.
Diocesan review boards, comprised mostly of lay people, help bishops oversee cases. Clergy found guilty are permanently barred from public ministry and, in some cases, ousted from the priesthood.
The US policy does not specifically order all bishops to notify civil authorities when claims are made.
Instead it instructs bishops to comply with state laws for reporting abuse, and to co-operate with authorities. All dioceses were also instructed to advise victims of their right to contact authorities themselves.
Paying the price
The Reverend Jim Martin, a Jesuit priest and author, said the Europeans could learn from the American experience, “particularly in their zero-tolerance policy for abusers, their creation of an office for child protection and their willingness to apologise to victims”.
But even with a Vatican-approved policy on the books, advocates for victims and church leaders disagree over how closely the policy has been followed. And even with all the reforms, the American church is still paying the price for the problem.
American dioceses have paid more than $2.7bn for settlements and other costs since 1950, according to tallies by the bishops and news reports.