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Vatican officials defend pope on abuse

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VATICAN CITY (AP) -- The Vatican on Saturday denounced what it called aggressive attempts to drag Pope Benedict XVI into the spreading scandals of pedophile priests in his German homeland.

It also insisted that church confidentiality doesn't prevent bishops from reporting abuse to police.

The Vatican's campaign to defend the pope's reputation and resolve in combatting clergy abuse of minors followed acknowledgment by the Munich archdiocese that it had transferred a suspected pedophile priest to community work while Benedict was archbishop there.

Benedict is also under fire for a 2001 church directive he wrote while a Vatican cardinal, instructing bishops to keep abuse cases confidential.

Germany's justice minister has blamed the directive for what she called a "wall of silence" preventing prosecution.

Skeptical about the Vatican's handling of abuse, a U.S.-based advocacy group for abuse victims, Survivors Network of those Abused for Priests, urged faithful to bring candles and childhood photos to vigils outside churches, cathedrals and German consulates across the U.S. this weekend to remind people to "call police, not bishops" in cases of suspected abuse.

But the Holy See's so-called prosecutor for clergy sex abuse cases, providing some of the first statistics about his office's handling of allegations, decried what he called "false and defamatory" contentions that Benedict had promoted a "policy of cover up."

At the Vatican, rules on handling sexual abuse were "never understood as a ban on making a complaint to civil authorities," Monsignor Charles Scicluna told Italian bishops conference daily Avvenire.

But Irish bishops have said the document was widely taken to mean they shouldn't go to police. And victims' lawyers in the U.S. say the document shows the church tried to obstruct justice.

Scicluna contended that in countries that do not oblige bishops to go to authorities with allegations of abuse, "we encourage them to invite the victims to report these priests."

The Maltese prelate said the pope had taken on the "painful responsibility" of personally deciding to remove those priests involved in "particularly grave cases with heavy proof."

Those cases amounted to about 10 percent of some 3,000 cases handled by the Vatican in the last decade, what Scicluna described as a small fraction of the 400,000 priests worldwide, and cover crimes committed over the last 50 years.

Clergy in another 10 percent of the cases were defrocked upon their own request, said Scicluna, adding that among them were priests in possession of pedophilia-pornography or with criminal convictions.

Meanwhile, the scandal swirling around Benedict's brother, Georg Ratzinger, escalated with the first public allegations of abuse of choirboys during some of the 30 years he ran the boys' choir in Regensburg. Thomas Mayer told Germany's Der Spiegel weekly that he had been sexually and physically abused while a member of the Regensburger Domspatzen boys choir through 1992.

The pontiff's brother led the group from 1964 to 1994. Previously reported cases of sexual abuse date back to the late 1950s.

Mayer charged in Spiegel that he had been raped by older pupils. Spiegel quoted him as saying that pupils were forced to have anal sex with one another in the apartment of a prefect at the church-run boarding school attached to the choir. The Regensburg diocese has refused to comment on the report.

The Vatican spokesman, speaking to Vatican Radio and Associated Press Television News, defended Benedict.

"It's rather clear that in the last days, there have been those who have tried, with a certain aggressive persistence, in Regensburg and Munich, to look for elements to personally involve the Holy Father in the matter of abuses," the Rev. Federico Lombardi told Vatican Radio.

"For any objective observer, it's clear that these efforts have failed," Lombardi said, reiterating his statement a day earlier noting the Munich diocese has insisted that Benedict wasn't involved in the decision while archbishop there to transfer the suspected child abuser.

Lombardi told The AP that "there hasn't been in the least bit any policy of silence."

"The pope is a person whose stand on clarity, on transparency and whose decision to face these problems is above discussion," Lombardi said, citing the comments by Scicluna, who works in the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, which was long headed by Benedict before his election as pontiff.

"To accuse the current pope of hiding (cases) is false and defamatory," Scicluna said.

As Vatican cardinal in charge of the policy on sex abuse, the future pope "showed wisdom and firmness in handling these cases," Scicluna said.

He said in the first years after the 2001 directive, most of the 3,000 cases came from the U.S., where dioceses across the nation were rocked by allegations by priests and systematic cover-ups by hierarchy and drained by hefty lawsuits by victims.

Only about 10 percent of the case dealt with "acts of true pedophilia," Scicluna said, while 60 percent of the cases involved priests who were sexually attracted to male adolescents. Some 30 percent of cases dealt with heterosexual abuse, he said.

How the Vatican has handled the cases since the 2001 directive provides "a very important signal to all the bishops of the church to face these problems with the required seriousness, clarity, rapidity and efficiency," Lombardi said.

The Catholic church in Switzerland has become swept up in the scandals. Swiss daily Neue Zuercher Zeitung quoted a Benedictine abbot, Martin Werlen, as saying that the Swiss bishops conference and various dioceses are investigating allegations after 60 people came forward to say they were victims of abuse by priests.

Shortly before becoming pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger denounced what he called "filth" in the priesthood, but so far hasn't directly commented on the cases in his homeland.

He has promised to write a letter soon to faithful in Ireland about decades of systematic abuse in church-run schools, orphanages and other institutions in that predominantly Roman Catholic nation.

The Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, where Benedict served as archbishop from 1977 to 1982, says that a working group, established last month after allegations of abuse in a church-run school, would be expanded to include an external, independent legal office.

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