Page last updated at 15:28 GMT, Thursday, 25 March 2010

Pressure grows on Pope over handling of abuse cases

David Willey
BBC Vatican correspondent

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) in 1998 when he headed the Head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
The then Cardinal Ratzinger was one of the best-informed Vatican officials

Allegations have surfaced in the US that Pope Benedict failed to take action before his election as pontiff in yet another serious case of clerical paedophilia which has just come to light, this time at a school for deaf children in the state of Wisconsin.

The case has been confirmed by the Vatican. The Pope's spokesman, however, defended the pontiff's silence on the grounds that the Vatican department responsible for disciplining errant priests, formerly headed by the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, had not been informed until 1996 - 20 years after the priest's victims first informed the police.

Hardly a day goes by without new cases of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests somewhere in the world being reported in the media.

A crisis has broken out for the Catholic Church which for decades swore bishops and Vatican officials who dealt with cases of priestly paedophilia to secrecy.

Fr Lombardi, the official Vatican spokesman who is also director of Vatican Radio and Vatican TV, has been working overtime on what has developed into a major damage-control mission organised by the secretariat of state - the small group of top Vatican officials who advise the Pope on policy matters.

In practically every country paedophilia is punished as a serious crime.

The Catholic Church teaches that it is also a particularly grave sin, in theory subject to extreme sanctions, but the evidence is that in some countries, priests accused of molesting children were usually moved to another parish rather than being punished or removed from office.

Scandal silence

The Vatican department headed by Joseph Ratzinger consistently seemed to listen to the priests rather than to their victims and tried to sweep all details under the carpet.

The rather lame excuse for lack of any action by the Vatican given by Fr Lombardi in the case of Fr Lawrence Murphy is that canon law, as Church law is called, "does not envision automatic penalties".

The crisis is deepening, even though last week Pope Benedict asked forgiveness and apologised on behalf of his Church for acts committed by paedophile Catholic priests in Ireland.

He has apologised previously for similar acts committed in the US and Australia but has said nothing publicly about similar scandals which took place for many years in his own country, Germany, including at the school where his own brother was choirmaster.

Members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests show pictures of Pope Benedict and of Fr Lawrence Murphy, outside The Vatican
Clerical abuse victims demanded answers outside the Vatican

The Pope, as a senior Vatican cardinal head of department, was responsible for dealing with these cases for more than 20 years before his election as pontiff in 2005 and is therefore one of the best informed in the Vatican about the extent, and even the detail, of every paedophile scandal reported to Rome.

So although he now appears to be instructing his 5,000 bishops scattered around the world to apply a new policy of "zero tolerance" of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests, similar to that devised by US bishops earlier this decade, the suspicion remains that for many years the best informed person in the Vatican about priestly paedophilia failed to react to the damning evidence which arrived on his desk.

Meanwhile in Rome, leaders of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (Snap) demonstrated in front of St Peter's Square, holding up pictures of Fr Murphy and some of his victims.

Pope Benedict only has to look down from his study window overlooking St Peter's square to see that the wave of international protest against his silence has arrived on his own doorstep.

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