Page last updated at 12:44 GMT, Thursday, 18 March 2010

Vatican ends 'wall of silence' over child abuse scandal

St Peter's Basilica, Rome
The Vatican has been forced to defend itself over abuse cases

The Vatican is breaking its silence on the previously taboo subject of paedophilia, following allegations of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Germany. As the Pope has now become embroiled in the scandal, the BBC's David Willey questions whether he has been doing his job properly.

During four decades of reporting from the Vatican, I have never seen a graver crisis affecting the very credibility of the leadership of the world's longest surviving international organisation, the Roman Catholic Church.

In recent weeks, Pope Benedict has had to deal with some very serious allegations.

They have been documented in two official Dublin government reports on scandals concerning the way his Church leaders in Ireland have systematically played down reported cases of clerical sexual abuse of minors.

The Pope has been busy writing new instructions to the clergy and faithful of traditionally Catholic Ireland, drawing up stricter rules for dealing with priestly paedophilia.

Multiple scandals

Without warning, he was suddenly confronting new, similar scandals which have come to light in his own country, Germany - including one in the very town where he taught at the university and where his brother was choirmaster of a famous boys' choir.

His promised pastoral letter to Ireland has had to be put on hold.

Now his record as Archbishop of Munich in the late 1970s and early 80s, is being mercilessly scrutinised by the international media.

Catholic Priests at Saint Peter's Basilica, Rome
For the first time, senior Catholic figures are beginning to call publicly for a re-examination of the rule of priestly celibacy

Did Pope Benedict know, or did he not know, about cases of priest paedophiles reported in his own diocese?

If yes, then why did he not act to discipline and remove them and inform the police?

It has since been admitted in Germany that there was a cover up, just as in similar cases elsewhere.

The Vatican says this hypothesis - as far as the Pope himself is concerned, is "false and defamatory".

But if the answer is no, then it seems legitimate to ask if the Archbishop, as he was then, was doing his job properly?

Oldest taboo

Naturally the Vatican public relations machine has been working overtime to deflect all personal criticism away from the pontiff.

A German prelate has taken the rap for the Munich cover up. The Vatican's version is that Pope Benedict knew nothing about one particularly worrisome and well-documented case which has remained in the headlines for days.

Ordinary Catholics in many countries are now asking questions about a subject which has been taboo at the Vatican ever since I can remember.

The other day a senior Vatican official, Monsignor Charles Scicluna - an amiable priest from Malta who holds the title of Promoter of Justice - actually gave a lengthy official interview about how headquarters in Rome have been reacting to the huge growth in the number of cases of clerical abuse reported to the Pope during the past decade alone.

He said their desks had been flooded with accusations of sexual misdemeanours by priests, above all in the United States, back in 2003 and 2004.

Only 300 priests were actual cases of paedophilia... it is not as widespread as has been believed
Monsignor Charles Scicluna

Cardinal Ratzinger - as he was then known - was head of the department responsible for disciplining seriously errant clergy worldwide.

He had displayed "wisdom and courage" in his handling of cases, Monsignor Scicluna declared.

He also gave numbers: during the past decade the Holy Office received details of 3,000 Catholic priests reported by their Bishops to Rome for sexual misconduct or, even worse, crimes.

Sixty per cent of these cases involved homosexual acts, 30% related to heterosexual behaviour and only 10% - or 300 priests - were, he said, "actual cases of paedophilia."

This was, of course, too many, Monsignor Scicluna admitted, but he added: "The phenomenon is not as widespread as has been believed."

Priestly misbehaviour

Some of the excuses have been lame, to say the least. For example, Father Lombardi, the official Vatican spokesperson, stressed that the problem of paedophilia is not limited to Church institutions.

He also denied that a "wall of silence" had been erected by Pope Benedict in 2001, when he signed an official Vatican document telling Catholic Bishops around the world to keep secret the details of priestly misbehaviour that they reported to Rome.

Pope Benedict XVI
The Pope sees celibacy in priests as "full devotion" to the Catholic church

This was simply a case of mistranslation of the text, according to Monsignor Scicluna: "The Church does not like to showcase justice, but has never banned the denouncing of crimes to the civil authorities," he said.

Even in Italy, cases of priestly paedophilia are coming out of the woodwork - over 80 of them, according to prosecutors.

In one case, the priest defended himself on the grounds that he sincerely believed it was not sinful for him to have sexual relations - provided it was not with a woman.

The whole problem of sex and the priesthood is now being discussed in a way it never has been before.

For the first time senior Catholic figures are beginning to call publicly for a re-examination of the rule of priestly celibacy.

Some have retracted, clearly on instructions from Rome, but the trend is unmistakeable, and the tipping point may have been reached this year as a result of the Vatican's inability to stem the tide of scandal.

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