Page last updated at 18:10 GMT, Monday, 15 March 2010

What next for scandal hit Catholic church?

Cardinal Sean Brady
Cardinal Sean Brady has said he will only resign if the Pope asks him to

BBC Northern Ireland religious affairs presenter William Crawley considers the continuing impact of Catholic child abuse scandals in Ireland and beyond.

The BBC Northern Ireland radio phone-in show I hosted on Monday received a record number of texts as we debated Cardinal Sean Brady's position.

Perhaps it's another small sign of the increasing willingness by ordinary Catholics in Ireland to speak out against church leaders, another indication of the seismic cultural shifts that have taken place here in the past decade.

A culture of religious deference has been eroded by one scandalous story after another.

Eighty percent of the texts we got were hostile. "He should resign immediately," said one lifelong Catholic.

"He has no moral authority left," added another.

One compared his unwillingness to resign to Bishop Margot Kaessmann, the leader of the Germany's 24 million Lutherans, who stood down earlier this month because she was caught driving under the influence of alcohol.

Cardinal Brady's "offence" was vastly more serious, according to the listener.

This weekend, he admitted that he represented the church at meetings in 1975, long before he became a bishop himself, when two victims of the serial child abuser Father Brendan Smyth were asked to sign an oath of silence about their complaints.

The victims were aged 14 and 15.

Brendan Smyth
Brendan Smyth is thought to have abused hundreds of children

Brendan Smyth later moved to other dioceses and countries, where he continued to abuse children for another 20 years.

When he was eventually brought to justice, he pleaded guilty in dozens of cases of abuse; it is thought that his victims number in the hundreds.

Smyth died in prison in 1998, but not before an extradition controversy related to his case led to the collapse of the Irish Republic's Labour/Fianna Fail coalition government.

In December, Sean Brady told a reporter that he would feel obliged to resign if any act or omission on his part "had allowed or meant that other children were abused".

Cardinal Brady now faces calls from victims campaigners to keep his word and resign as Irish primate.

He says he was merely following orders from his superiors.

Some victims of clerical abuse have pointedly reminded him that this argument didn't work in Nuremberg in 1945, and it doesn't work now.

Many Catholics are still reeling from two major state reports which chronicled decades of child abuse in church-run institutions and an organised cover-up of rape and molestation allegations by senior church leaders in the archdiocese of Dublin.

In the wake of the latest report, four bishops were forced to resign.

The entire Irish hierarchy were summoned to the Vatican to give an account of themselves in person before Pope Benedict.

And the Irish church now waits to receive an unprecedented Pastoral Letter from the Pope addressing the church's future in the light of the most recent scandals.

Psychologists have noted that the willingness of victims in one jurisdiction to go public can encourage victims in other jurisdictions to do the same.

As Cardinal Brady fights for his career - he said he will only resign if Pope Benedict asks him to - there are signs that the Irish church's sex scandal is triggering aftershocks across Europe.

Pope Benedict
Pope Benedict has had to deal with sex abuse scandals in various countries

Last month, reports began to surface of historic abuse cases in several elite Jesuit boarding schools in Germany.

The German Catholic Church is now dealing with multiplying new reports of physical and sexual abuse, including some linked to a renowned choir once led by Pope Benedict's brother, Fr Georg Ratzinger.

As the domino effect of reporting continues, the wave of abuse revelations reached the Netherlands by late February, with scores of victims coming forward.

Crisis

By March, the scandal had spread to Switzerland, where 60 new cases have now come to light.

And in the past few weeks, more abuse cases have emerged in Austria and Poland.

This weekend, a Vatican spokesman denounced "aggressive" efforts by the media to personally implicate the Pope in the unfolding child abuse crisis as questions were raised about the handling of a priest accused of molestation in the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising when the future Pope was archbishop in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Last Friday, the Pope met the President of the German Bishops' Conference to discuss the wider sex abuse crisis, just as an archbishop in Austria was breaking ranks to call for a public discussion about the future of the mandatory celibacy rule for priests.

Some informed Vatican sources now predict that the text of Pope Benedict's pastoral letter to the Irish church will need to be expanded to include churches across Europe as full realisation dawns that the clerical sex abuse crisis now facing the church is a European problem, not just an Irish one.



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