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Pope battles to contain abuse scandal

March 17, 2010

By Guy Dinmore in Rome, Quentin Peel in Berlin and John Murray Brown in Dublin

Published: March 17 2010

Pope Benedict was fighting on Wednesday to contain the disastrous fallout for the Vatican from the spreading sexual abuse scandal involving priests across Europe. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, stepped into the debate by demanding “truth and clarity” and suggesting compensation for victims.

Speaking at his weekly audience in St Peter’s Square, the pontiff said he would sign his long-awaited pastoral letter tomorrow to the Irish faithful on paedophilia. This is in response to last November’s Murphy report report by the Irish government, which accused the Church in Ireland of having “obsessively” concealed numerous cases of child abuse by priests.

The Pope said he hoped the unprecedented letter would help bring “repentance, healing and renewal”. It remains to be seen whether the Vatican will make concrete proposals in response to the crisis.

However, the Pope made no direct reference to the unfolding controversy in his native Germany, where he is under mounting pressure to respond forcefully in public to an outpouring of allegations of child abuse by priests, with some cases dating back decades to when he was archbishop of Munich.

Ms Merkel made clear to the Bundestag that the government was not seeking a head-on confrontation with the Church, as cases of abuse had happened in many different areas of society.

The chancellor welcomed the proposal by three government ministers to hold a round-table discussion involving both alleged victims and church leaders, to debate the issues, including that of compensation.

Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, head of the Catholic Church in Germany, sought to reassure politicians in Berlin that the Church would do everything in its power to ensure that the full facts were brought to light.

The Irish government has paid out more than €1bn ($1.4bn, £900m) in compensation to victims of paedophile priests in Church-run schools, orphanages and reformatories. The religious orders who ran those institutions on behalf of the state were indemnified against legal action but had to contribute €127m to a special compensation fund. Settlements have also been made by individual Church dioceses.

Hans Küng, the radical theologian, has called for the Pope to issue his own mea culpa over the spate of cases of sexual abuse.

Writing in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Professor Küng, who was stripped of his right to preach as a Catholic theologian by the Vatican, said that “no other person in the Church has had so many cases of sexual abuse cross his desk than he”.

Noting the recent outpouring of allegations of child abuse by priests that have also emerged in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Poland and Italy, a veteran observer of the Vatican commented: “This is the biggest challenge to the Church in modern times since the unification of Italy in 1861 or the second world war.”

“Can Benedict deal with this?” he added, noting the pontiff’s background as an academic with very little pastoral experience who now appears an isolated ­figure.

The Pope’s defenders note that Benedict was the first pontiff to meet victims of clerical abuse in his visit to the US and Australia in 2008.

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