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Pope beset by paedophile cover-up allegations

March 27, 2010

by Guy Dinmore in Rome

Published: March 27 2010

Dragged further into a widening child abuse scandal engulfing the Catholic church, Pope Benedict XVI conferred yesterday with his closest aides as media attention focused relentlessly on his personal role in alleged cover-ups.

The growing crisis is fast becoming the most serious to confront the Vatican in decades. But with the 82-year-old pontiff maintaining his public silence over controversies surrounding his past management of cases involving paedophile priests in the US and his native Germany, the Vatican appeared to be adopting a fortress mentality, presenting the church and its leader as victims of a media frenzy.

The Pope held a private audience with Cardinal William Levada, head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly the Inquisition and still prosecutor of clerics who have strayed from the church’s moral and theological doctrine.

A one-line statement by the Vatican gave no details of their talks. But the CDF is the body that has been charged with leading a push – promised in a letter of apology to Irish Catholics from the pope last week – for more transparency and rigour in dealing with paedophile priests as well as their responsible superiors.

But it is the Pope’s own role as the previous cardinal heading the CDF and his earlier tenure as archbishop of Munich that are coming under scrutiny.

The Vatican was forced again on the defensive yesterday, denying a report in the New York Times that in 1980 the then Cardinal Ratzinger was copied in a memo and thus should have known about the return to pastoral duties of a German priest who had started psychiatric treatment for paedophilia. The priest was later convicted of molesting boys in another parish.

The Vatican reiterated that Cardinal Ratzinger had “no knowledge of the decision” to reassign the priest, identified as Father H.

Leading Church newspapers devoted their front pages to defending Pope Benedict from separate allegations that as head of the CDF in 1996 he ignored pleas from American bishops to deal decisively with a paedophile priest known to have abused as many as 200 children under his care in a school for the deaf.

“There is no smoking gun,” said a veteran Vatican observer in Rome. He noted that the then cardinal had not been informed by the US bishops until 22 years after the alleged abuse and that the police in Milwaukee had also failed in that time to deal with Father Lawrence Murphy even though, as the Vatican admitted on Thursday, children had “suffered terribly” under him.

Defenders of the Pope outside the Vatican point to his scathing criticism of the Irish bishops last week and his meeting in 2008 with US victims of paedophile priests. But they too are alarmed at the emergence of a fortress mentality in the church’s response.

Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, an aide to the Pope, set the tone, telling reporters on Thursday: “This is a pretext for attacking the church . . . There is a well organised plan with a very clear aim.”

This theme was pursued by Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s newspaper, in an editorial accusing the media of neglecting facts with the “evident and despicable intent to get to and strike Benedict XVI and his closest collaborators, regardless of everything”.

People close to the Vatican have been speaking in ominous tones of a conspiracy by masonic lodges and big business to undermine the church. Associations representing victims of child abuse dismiss such talk. They attribute the surfacing across Europe in recent weeks of hundreds of fresh allegations of abuse, some dating back decades, to a breaking of a social taboo.

“People are finding the courage to speak out,” said David Clohessy, executive director of the US-based Survivor Network of those Abused by Priests, four of whose members took their protest to the steps of the Vatican on Thursday before being detained by Italian police.

More embarrassment emerged for the Vatican yesterday when the Legion of Christ, an influential order of priests, apologised and disowned its late Mexican founder, Father Marcial Maciel, a cult figure accused of having been a sexual molester and to have fathered at least one child. But observers note that it was Benedict, first as cardinal and later as Pope, who had demanded an investigation of the order.

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