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Monday, 16 December, 2002, 18:35 GMT
Catholic Church in crisis
The crisis focused attention on allegations being made across the Catholic world
It has been a distressing time for the ailing Pope

For the Catholic Church, 2002 was the year the sex abuse scandal finally erupted.

Allegations about the activities of paedophile priests had been simmering for years.

But the crisis suddenly boiled over, and the Vatican was faced with a flood of damaging revelations from churches around the world.

There has been a public outcry in the US
The US Church was accused of a huge cover-up
For the ailing John Paul II, in the twilight of his papacy, it has been a distressing time.

What turned into a global crisis for the church began with a spate of allegations in the United States.

When one former priest went on trial in Boston, victims of sexual abuse in churches across the country started hiring lawyers.

In the space of a few weeks, the accusations - some stretching back many years - multiplied at an alarming rate.

Resignation demands

Particularly damaging for the Church were claims that bishops had tried to keep a lid on the scandal by quietly moving abusing priests from one diocese to another.

But now it was all out in the open. Priests were suspended, bishops resigned, and cardinals faced demands for their resignation.

The US cardinals were summoned to Rome for a crisis meeting with the Pope. By the end of the year, a policy had been agreed for dealing with suspected paedophiles.

An abuser will be barred from any post which could bring him into contact with the general public
Church leaders agreed a policy for dealing with suspected paedophiles
But the Vatican's insistence on safeguards for those accused led to complaints by victims' groups that the promised "zero tolerance" policy was being watered down.

By now the US Church found itself facing multi-million dollar lawsuits from hundreds of Catholics claiming to have been abused by priests.

Alarmed by the financial consequences, church leaders in Boston considered filing for bankruptcy. But it was the growing damage to the reputation of the church that caused most concern.

And so the city's archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law, returned to the Vatican to discuss his future.

Global scandal

With many of his own priests calling for him to stand down, his position had become untenable. This time the Pope accepted his resignation.

It would have been bad enough if the scandal had been confined to the US, a relatively small part of a global church with one billion members.

But the crisis focused attention on allegations being made across the Catholic world, from Brazil to Hong Kong, from Ireland to South Africa.

In Poland, homeland of the Pope, an archbishop stood accused of molesting young men training for the priesthood.

In many countries it is difficult finding enough recruits for the priesthood
Finding enough recruits for the priesthood has been difficult
In the Philippines, the church admitted that 200 priests were suspected of "sexual misconduct".

In Australia, the church took out newspaper advertisements to apologise to victims of sex abuse by its priests.

And in the United Kingdom, the Archbishop of Westminster, Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, faced awkward questions about the way he had dealt with an abusing priest.

In country after country, a scandal that had existed just beneath the surface of church life burst into the headlines.

It forced the Vatican to confront the issue of sexual abuse by priests, and the consequences could be far reaching.

The spotlight is on gay men in the church, and many innocent priests feel they are now under suspicion.

They fear there will now be efforts to stop gay men joining the clergy. But in many countries, it is already difficult finding enough recruits for the priesthood.

This has been a painful issue for the Catholic Church to confront.

But the Pope knows that the concerns of the faithful must be addressed if trust in the priesthood is to be restored.


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