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The Vatican: A cross to bear

April 2, 2010

By Guy Dinmore

Published: April 2 2010

Pope Benedict XVI

Such is the furore over the Catholic Church’s handling of hundreds of alleged cases of sex abuse by paedophile priests that television crews were dispatched to the Vatican this week – to cover not the Easter celebrations but a frenzy of speculation that Pope Benedict XVI was on the brink of making history by resigning.

They are sure to leave Rome disappointed. Yet pressure is mounting on the pontiff at least to break his silence over the snowballing crisis by directly addressing allegations that he was involved in covering up two cases of child-abusing priests, first as archbishop of Munich in 1980 and later as Cardinal Ratzinger in the 1990s.

Again this appears unlikely. Leading a Palm Sunday service in St Peter’s Square at the start of Holy Week, the Pope signalled he would chart his own course, saying faith in God gives “the courage of not allowing oneself to be intimidated by the petty gossip of dominant opinion”.

John Allen, a biographer of the Pope and analyst for the US National Catholic Reporter, says talk of a “smoking gun” directly linking Benedict to earlier alleged cover-ups is a red herring, and that he has done more than anyone in the Vatican over the years to deal with sex abuse in the Church.

He concedes, however, that the Pope – who marks his 83rd birthday this month, as well as the fifth anniversary of his election to the Chair of St Peter – lives in another dimension that makes him appear divorced from the tempest around him.

“Ratzinger has the great gift of thinking in terms of centuries. He is never terribly bothered by today’s news,” says Mr Allen. “But we don’t live in a world of 500 years’ time, but in today’s world, and all of this is a huge mess that will only get worse. One wishes for a more energetic and on-the-ball response.”

So far the Vatican’s formal response – in sharp contrast to the proactive approach of the Church in the Pope’s native Germany – has been to issue blunt denials and blame the messenger. Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, and a handful of senior clerics appear to be adopting the tactics of Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s billionaire prime minister who, under fire for his playboy lifestyle, presents himself as a victim of conspiracy.

That may work in Italy. But the Church is losing swaths of its 1bn worldwide followers and their donations, while facing mounting lawsuits costly both in financial and moral terms. US dioceses have already paid out more than $1.1bn in compensation.

“Substantially the Vatican has a point, but blaming the media never works,” says Mr Allen. “It is not an exit strategy. Benedict is going to have to address this. ”

In Germany, where more than 250 Catholics have registered alleged abuse cases, most occurring at Catholic boarding schools decades ago, a survey published by Stern magazine, indicated that nearly a fifth of the country’s estimated 25m Catholics were considering leaving the Church in response to the abuse scandal.

Ireland’s Church hierarchy, now a crumbling pillar of the country’s establishment, risks “imploding”, according to a Vatican source, in the face of outrage at a culture of secrecy exposed by government investigations into thousands of cases of child abuse by priests going back decades.

Seeking to regain the initiative in a March 21 pastoral letter to the Irish faithful – the Pope’s sole public response to date to the crisis – Benedict issued a profound apology and announced the dispatch of an “apostolic visitation”, the equivalent of putting the Irish bishops into administration. But that fell short of assuaging public demands for mass resignations, with Cardinal Sean Brady, Irish primate, resisting calls to step down.

Dragged into the courts, the Church is fighting the first US case reaching the stage of determining whether three victims of alleged abuse have a claim against the Vatican for negligence. Lawyers as far away as Australia plan to use similar strategies.

The lawsuit, filed in Kentucky in 2004, calls for Benedict to answer questions under oath. As it has done before, the Vatican is expected to argue that the Pope has immunity as head of state and that American bishops responsible for the priests involved were not Vatican employees.

A potentially more explosive trial is under way a few minutes’ walk from the Vatican yet largely ignored by Italy’s deferential media. Father Ruggero Conti, a prominent priest in Rome with powerful political and clerical connections, was arrested in June 2008 and charged with paedophilia following accusations by seven young men, one a minor when the case began.

Caramella Buona (“Nice Sweet”) a non-government organisation that campaigns against paedophilia, is providing legal aid to two of the accusers, and is preparing to launch a lawsuit against Gino Reali, a Rome bishop, alleging a cover-up. “It is still a taboo subject in Italy,” says Roberto Mirabile, the body’s president. “We don’t have a Merkel or an Irish government,” he says, referring to the German chancellor’s call in parliament last month for “truth and clarity”, and to Dublin’s damning investigations into thousands of cases of child abuse by priests over the decades.

A priest working under Father Conti who leaked the allegations of abuse to Caramella Buona was removed from his post. Mr Mirabile says in June 2007 the NGO presented its findings in private to Monsignor Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s promoter of justice in charge of investigating such cases, but was told there was no file on Father Conti.

Father Conti, who has denied the charges and says he is a “victim” of a plot by rivals, is said by Caramella Buona to have committed further sexual abuse until police detained him. He is under house arrest after time spent in prison.

Mr Mirabile says the case, believed to be one of about 30 involving alleged sex abuse by priests in Italy, shows the Church does not have the strength or means to stop abuse without opening up to specialised outside organisations that can help select and educate trainee priests, as well as impress upon bishops the seriousness of paedophilia.

Monsignor Scicluna, a Maltese cleric, has revealed in interviews how his department within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – known in a previous incarnation as the Inquisition – is struggling with the sheer weight of numbers. Monsignor Scicluna, supported by just seven priests and one lay criminal expert, revealed that 3,000 priests have been reported by bishops to Rome for sexual misconduct and other crimes over the past decade. He said 10 per cent – or 300 cases – involved paedophilia.

This was, of course, too many, Monsignor Scicluna admitted, but he added: “The phenomenon is not as widespread as has been believed.” He said that to accuse the Pope of hiding cases was “false and defamatory”.

No Vatican insider knows the scale of the problem better than Benedict, appointed in 2001 by his predecessor John Paul II to deal with the sex abuse crisis as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to which John Paul directed bishops to send cases of paedophile priests.

Mr Allen says Benedict “shares in the corporate failure in Rome to appreciate the magnitude of the crisis until terribly late in the game” but insists it is wrong to hold him responsible for cases before 2001.

Benedict’s letter that year to the bishops, De delictis gravioribus (“on more serious crimes”), ordering that such offences be “subject to the pontifical secret” has been widely interpreted by victims’ groups as the smoking gun proving that Cardinal Ratzinger, as he then was, sought to keep cases from the police and public.

The Vatican insists, however, that secrecy applied only to its internal procedures and that there was no intent to prevent information reaching the civil authorities. At the time, Cardinal Ratzinger was in fact seen to be underlining how seriously the Vatican was starting to take the problem. It was after that experience of reviewing all the files that he spoke out about the “filth” in the Church.

“In this crisis the Pope has unlimited power. The Church is a monarchy and he is king,” says David Clohessy, head of the US-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (Snap). “Given the magnitude of the crisis and degree of devastation, words alone are irresponsible.”

However, Benedict, portrayed by those who know him as retiring, isolated and physically frail, does not appear to have the appetite to impose mass resignations on clerics in Ireland or elsewhere.

One veteran observer, who asked not to be named, credits him with leading resolutely in dealing with criminal priests, setting zero tolerance as official policy. But it is less clear that the Church is able to deal with the bishops responsible for covering up crimes.

Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, German justice minister, has spoken of a “wall of silence”. Snap, other victims’ group and lawyers are demanding that the Vatican open its files. This too appears unlikely. Father Lombardi was quoted this week as saying: “This is not some multinational company where a chief executive is expected to take responsibility,” he said.

The question now is whether Benedict will use his Easter Sunday Urbi et Orbi message “to the city and the world” from his window above St Peter’s Square to address the crisis. Hopes among some clerics that the orthodox theologian will unveil reforms, such as lifting the requirement of celibacy for priests, are surely in vain. But perhaps an extension of his apology to the Irish, to encompass all his followers, is in the offing.

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