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Vatican forced to defend itself over abuse cases

By Robert Pigott
BBC News religious affairs correspondent

Pope Benedict XVI
The Pope's Bavarian homeland has not escaped the scandal

As accusations of historic sexual abuse by Roman Catholics emerge in another European country, the Vatican has insisted it has dealt with "the very serious issue" promptly and decisively.

After recent revelations of widespread abuse in Ireland, and claims of similar mistreatment of children by priests in Austria and Germany, Catholic bishops in the Netherlands have now set up an independent inquiry to look into allegations there.

More than 200 reports of abuse have been made to a victims' support organisation in the last few days.

Dutch bishops have offered their apologies to those who were abused.

The Church in Ireland is already struggling to repair relations with a disillusioned public after three official reports in the past five years detailed abuse stretching over several decades and condemned the Church for keeping it secret.

Pope Benedict is expected to issue a letter to be read out in Catholic churches in Ireland later this month, in which he will respond publicly to the scandal.

'Wall of silence'

The allegations from Germany are particularly sensitive, because the Pope was born in the country, and because they include a choir led by his brother Georg.

Reports surfaced last month that Catholic priests had sexually abused more than 170 children at Jesuit schools in Germany.

Woman with rosary in church
More scandals could shake people's faith in the Church, as they have in Ireland

Those have been followed by fresh allegations of abuse at three Catholic schools in Bavaria, and within a boys' choir that was directed for 30 years by Monsignor Georg Ratzinger.

Monsignor Ratzinger said he was aware that children had been beaten at schools attended by the choristers.

However, he said he knew nothing of the kind of sex abuse now being reported.

In Austria the head of a Benedictine monastery in Salzburg has resigned after admitting to sexually abusing a 12-year-old boy more than four decades ago.

Criticism of the Church has intensified in Germany, with an accusation by the justice minister that bishops behaved secretively in dealing with even severe cases of abuse.

Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said: "In many schools there was a wall of silence allowing for abuse and violence."

Church officials called the minister's remarks "absurd", and the Vatican insisted that Roman Catholic leaders had "shown a desire for transparency".

Authority at risk

Its spokesman, Frederico Lombardi said the Church had accelerated the process of unearthing abuse by encouraging victims to speak out about old cases.

Fr Lombardi acknowledged "the gravity of the anguish the Church is going through", adding that it was striving for better protection for children as well as its own "purification".

However, he insisted that the problem of sex abuse - although especially reprehensible when it happened inside the Church - was a problem belonging to the whole of society.

The Church is already fighting a battle against secularisation in Western Europe, and the steady erosion of its influence.

There are demands for modernisation, especially the ending of celibacy for priests, fiercely resisted by Pope Benedict.

The experience of the Catholic Church in the United States shows how damaging a long drawn out scandal of sex abuse could be to the Church's authority and prestige in Europe too.



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SEE ALSO
Dutch bishops order abuse inquiry
10 Mar 10 |  Europe
Vatican accused over German abuse
08 Mar 10 |  Europe
Pope condemns bishops over abuse
16 Feb 10 |  Europe

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