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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)

"You think the problem is resolved and under control, but then you hear more," said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the bishops' conference in Washington. "I can hear people in the U.S. saying this is five, six years behind us already, and yet it's happening all over again. They are now addressing in Europe what we addressed in 2002."

Some critics of how the U.S. scandal was handled, however, say the church's problems with transparency remain. Despite the reforms, they say, few U.S. bishops involved were held accountable.

Benedict under fire

The scandal in Europe has the added dimension of raising questions about the response to abuse allegations by a bishop who went on to become pope.

In Germany, a priest and accused sex offender sent to therapy in 1980 on orders approved by Ratzinger, then the archbishop of Munich, was later returned to religious duties, where he reportedly molested more children. The Vatican has said that Ratzinger was not aware that the priest was returned to pastoral duties.

On Thursday, the Vatican was on the defense again after a New York Times article detailing the case of a priest accused of molesting as many as 200 deaf boys in Wisconsin. In the late 1990s -- about 20 years after his suspected crimes -- his case was reported to the powerful Holy See's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then headed by Ratzinger. The congregation took no action.

In a statement, the Vatican said the decision not to defrock Father Lawrence Murphy was based on the length of time since the allegations, the priest's advanced age and ill health, and the fact that a civil investigation had been dropped.

L'Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, said that a media campaign was underway against Benedict and that the Times article was part of it, showing "the evident and shameful attempt to strike, at any cost, Pope Benedict and his closest collaborators." In a front-page editorial defending the pope, the paper said he had acted with "transparency, firmness and severity."

Vatican authorities have lauded Benedict's response to the Europe crisis as swifter, by church standards, than anyone could have hoped for. They noted his rare apology to the Irish people Saturday, which was sharper in tone and substance to Pope John Paul II's response to the U.S. crisis.

On Wednesday, the Vatican also launched what many here see as the first in the wave of disciplinary actions against European bishops found to be tolerant of sexual abuse, with the pope accepting the resignation of the bishop of Cloyne.

In terms of how the Catholic Church could implement new policies in Europe, experts say the European dioceses could take the same approach the U.S. conference did in 2002, when it drafted a charter and had an accompanying legal document sent to the Vatican for approval. A more direct route would be for the pope to issue new requirements himself -- a move that Vatican insiders say is under intense debate at the Vatican.

The pope "can make any law he wants to," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. "If he wanted to make a zero-tolerance rule universal, he could do it."

Wan and staff writer N.C. Aizenman reported from Washington. Special correspondents Sarah Delaney in Rome, Karla Adam in London and Jabeen Bhatti in Berlin contributed to this report.

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