Pope sees scandal as test for himself, church; European bishops pledge openness, cooperation

By Nicole Winfield, AP
Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Pope sees sex scandal as test; bishops urge reform

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI sees the priestly sex scandal as a “test for him and the church,” his spokesman says, as bishops around Europe used Holy Week’s solemn call for penitence to pledge transparency in dealing with the abuse of children.

But amid such signs of humility, a senior cleric also mounted a sharp counterattack to the allegations now swirling around the papacy. In an article, the official accused The New York Times of faulting the pope unfairly for his treatment of past abuse allegations.

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 Christoph 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 judgment 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 cooperative with police echoed American bishops’ initial responses when the U.S. 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 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 spokesman the Rev. 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 grueling Holy Week schedule.

Benedict celebrated Holy Thursday Mass at the Vatican but made no mention of the scandals.

“As priests, we are called in fellowship with Jesus Christ, to be men of peace, we are called to oppose violence and trust in the greater power of love,” Benedict said in his homily in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Later, he will 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 Web site that a lengthy trial for the Rev. 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 spokeswoman 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 U.S. and Ireland, mainland Europe woke up to the issue 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.

Swiss bishops admitted Wednesday they had underestimated the problem and are now telling victims to consider filing criminal complaints.

“It is important to us that unconditional transparency is brought to the past,” the Swiss bishops said in a statement. They urged all abusers to “stand before God and the people whom they have wronged and report to the relevant authorities.”

Switzerland, home of the Swiss Guard papal protectors, is considering creating a central registry of pedophile priests to prevent them from coming into contact with children. Swiss bishops are divided over the proposal.

In Austria, Cardinal Schoenborn celebrated a Wednesday evening service for abuse victims in a sign of repentance.

Schoenborn, who has taken a lead in denouncing the scandal and demanding reforms, was named Vienna archbishop in 1995, tasked to clean up the mess in the diocese after Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer was forced to resign as archbishop over allegations he molested youths at a monastery in the 1970s.

Schoenborn announced over the weekend the creation of a church-funded but independent and clergy-free commission headed by a woman to suggest ways to strengthen church guidelines for dealing with sexual abuse.

In Switzerland and Germany, bishops are considering mandatory or automatic reporting requirements for bishops. In Switzerland, civil servants such as teachers are required to inform police of possible sexual abuse cases, but the clergy are not.

Germany’s bishops’ guidelines for dealing with abuse say accused priests are advised to contact law enforcement on their own if there are “proven cases” of abuse. But there are no requirements for church authorities to do so.

In February, German bishops announced they would revise the guidelines by summer. Bishops in Benedict’s native Bavaria are lobbying for an automatic relay of all suspected abuse cases to civil authorities.

Chancellor Angela Merkel praised efforts by German Catholic authorities to investigate the abuses, telling RTL television it was “very good” that the church has set up a hotline for victims and installed a coordinator to tackle the problem.

“There is no alternative to truth and clarity,” she said.

In Italy, the bishops’ conference ended its annual meeting with a vague pledge of cooperation with civil authorities. Italian politicians have rallied to defend the pope as news reports raised questions about his response to abuse cases he oversaw when he held lower positions within the church.

The measures enacted and promised to date in Europe still fall short of the zero-tolerance policy adopted by U.S. bishops after the clerical abuse scandal exploded in 2002.

The U.S. policy, approved by the Vatican as church law in the U.S., bars credibly accused priests from any public church work while claims against them are under investigation.

The U.S. 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 cooperate with authorities. All dioceses were also instructed to advise victims of their right to contact authorities themselves.

The Rev. 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 apologize to victims.”

American dioceses have paid more than $2.7 billion for settlements and other costs since 1950, according to tallies by the bishops and news reports.

Associated Press Writers Bradley S. Klapper in Geneva, Victor L. Simpson in Vatican City, Rachel Zoll in New York, Veronika Oleksyn in Vienna, Verena Schmitt-Roschmann in Berlin and Richard Steed in Copenhagen contributed to this report.

(This version CORRECTS spelling of bishop’s first name in 3rd graf to Christoph.)

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