Scandal in Europe increases pressure on Vatican to ensure greater transparency

Activists spoke out in public near the Vatican Thursday, questioning the pope's role in an ongoing abuse scandal. Documents indicate that the Vatican stopped a church trial for a priest accused of molesting deaf boys in Wisconsin. (25 March 2010)
By Anthony Faiola and William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 26, 2010

ROME -- An escalating scandal over clerical sexual abuse in Europe is heightening calls for greater transparency in the Vatican and a zero-tolerance policy toward abusive priests that would mirror the approach adopted by the U.S. Catholic Church.

The Vatican is confronting what observers describe as its gravest test in years, with officials fending off allegations that Pope Benedict XVI mismanaged abuse cases that occurred years before he ascended to the papacy in 2005. No leading Catholic authorities or organizations have called on Benedict to take personal responsibility for the scandals, and Vatican watchers in Rome strongly maintained Thursday that there is no serious threat to the pope's position.

Yet the scope of the abuse cases emerging in Europe and new allegations this week that a Vatican office led by Benedict -- then known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- failed to defrock an American priest who had allegedly molested as many as 200 deaf boys have again shed a spotlight on Vatican secrecy over such sensitive issues as church finances and abuse cases. It has put the ancient institution, famous for centuries-long debates over changes in church policies, under intense pressure to update its response time.

"The pope is at a crossroads," said Marco Politi, a papal biographer and longtime Vatican watcher. "He now has to choose whether to move ahead with a clear policy of transparency or whether he will try to limit a tough line and a process of more openness on this matter in the church."

In a scandal in which the crimes often go back decades and have surfaced in different countries at various times during the past decade, the Vatican appears to be reeling over the pace of the current chapter in Europe.

On Jan. 28, the German weekly Der Spiegel reported allegations that two priests abused several students in the 1970s and 1980s at an elite Jesuit high school in Berlin. In the ensuing weeks, more than 300 alleged victims have come forward, with hundreds more surfacing in Austria, the Netherlands and Switzerland. Last year, two government reports were released in Ireland detailing thousands of cases of sexual and physical abuse at the hands of Irish clergy from 1930 to 1990.

Officials across Europe are calling for the adoption of zero-tolerance policies, such as those enacted in the United States after thousands of abuse cases emerged there. They are also calling for the Vatican to open the files on more than 3,000 abuse cases that have gone before a powerful church office between 2001 and 2010. In a recent interview, the Vatican's chief prosecutor, Monsignor Charles Scicluna, said 20 percent of the cases had received full Vatican trials.

"The church is clearly having problems with their policies and is being forced to change, become more open because of these people coming forward," said Thomas Pfister, a special investigator appointed by the church to look into allegations of abuse at a boarding school in southern Germany. "They can no longer close themselves off. The time of the 'walls of silence' has passed."

The U.S. reform model

Officials in Europe are increasingly looking to the United States as a model for coping with the crisis here.

In the aftermath of the U.S abuse cases, which came to light in 2002, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted a complete overhaul of the way sex abuse is reported, new policies for quicker response and, most importantly, a strict no-tolerance policy.

According to the new U.S. policies, whenever a priest is accused of abuse, he is immediately suspended from ministry while the accusation is investigated. The abuse is reported not only to the diocese but also to local authorities -- a system used in a limited capacity by Catholic dioceses in Europe.

As part of the U.S. reforms, anyone within the church, including priests and parent volunteers at parochial schools who work with children, must go through a "safe environment program." Children also are put through the program so they can learn how to recognize improper behavior and how to tell adults when it happens.

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