Vatican, Catholic officials defend Pope Benedict XVI's record on child abuse cases

Victims of priest abuse at a school for the deaf in Milwaukee are pointing the finger at Pope Benedict for doing nothing at the time. Allen Pizzey reports from Vatican City.
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post staff writer
Wednesday, March 31, 2010

VATICAN CITY -- The Vatican on Tuesday dismissed any notion that Pope Benedict XVI should take personal responsibility for the child-sexual-abuse scandal rocking the church, defending his management of such cases and vowing that the crisis would not interrupt what historians view as his conservative agenda for Catholics around the world.

The defense of the pope, outlined in an interview Tuesday by the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican's official spokesman, came as the church hierarchy is launching a public relations blitz in the United States and Europe to ease Catholic anger and bolster the pope's image in sermons and interviews ahead of Easter Sunday.

Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn of Vienna, for instance, this week publicly countered accusations that Benedict turned a blind eye to abuse scandals when, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he headed a powerful Vatican office in charge of disciplinary action of the clergy between 1981 and 2005. Schoenborn said that Ratzinger in 1995 pressed for a special investigation into the former archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, for allegedly molesting young monks. That push, Schoenborn said, was blocked by aides to then-Pope John Paul II.

It raised the possibility, Vatican watchers say, that the legacy of the late John Paul II's handling of abuse cases may now come under equal scrutiny.

"I can still very clearly remember the moment when Cardinal Ratzinger sadly told me that the other camp had asserted itself," Schoenborn told Austria's ORF Television. "To accuse him of being someone who covers things up -- having known the pope for many years -- I can say that is certainly not true."

Benedict has nevertheless come under fire for mismanaging cases of accused pedophiles in the clergy. In 1980, when he was archbishop of Munich, Ratzinger approved the transfer of a German priest and sex offender for therapy. Despite promises to the victim's family that the priest would not work with children again, he was allowed to return to the ministry and molested more children. The Vatican has said Ratzinger was not aware that the priest returned to pastoral duties, a move approved by his then-deputy, Vicar General Gerhard Gruber.

Responding to news media reports bringing the scandal ever closer to the pope, the influential archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, on Sunday compared the attacks against Benedict to the ordeal of Jesus Christ, denouncing "the same unjust accusations, shouts of the mob and scourging at the pillar."

The response underscores concern about a growing crisis of faith in the church -- and in the pope -- following revelations in January of widespread sexual abuse by clerics in Germany. They arrived on the heels of two government reports documenting thousands of cases of sexual abuse by clergy in Ireland between 1930 and 1990. Hundreds of victims have since come forward in Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Italy.

Last week, accusations also surfaced that a Vatican office headed by Ratzinger in the 1990s failed to defrock an American priest who allegedly molested 200 deaf boys in Wisconsin.

For American Catholics, the roiling scandal in Europe has rekindled memories of scores of abuse cases that emerged in the early 2000s. Lombardi said the adoption of zero-tolerance policies by the U.S. Catholic Church had "succeeded," as new allegations have dropped substantially in recent years. But in light of the current crisis, Lombardi said the Vatican will "continue to take more steps."

He did not rule out the possibility of a special Synod of Bishops, or conference, to tackle the issue or the establishment of universal Vatican guidelines on the handling of sexual-abuse cases -- two ideas currently being floated by church authorities. Lombardi also suggested that the pope would continue to hold bishops accountable for failures. Benedict has already accepted the resignations of two Irish bishops, and Lombardi said an independent Vatican investigation being launched in Ireland would be aimed at the "renewal and reorganization" of the Irish church.

Yet Lombardi said that still relatively isolated suggestions that the pope himself should resign were "obviously coming from those who do not understand the Catholic Church."

"This is not some multinational company where the chief executive is expected to take responsibility," Lombardi said. "The pope is not personally directing the actions of priests around the world. He is their spiritual leader, and he is one who has acted very clearly to confront this problem."

Nevertheless, the church, and the pope, appear to be facing an increasingly serious image problem. Opinion polls in the United States and Germany have shown a sharp drop in Benedict's popularity in the aftermath of the crisis. A USA Today/Gallop survey taken March 26 to 28, for instance, showed that only 40 percent of those queried in the United States had a favorable view of Benedict, down from 63 percent during the pope's U.S. tour in April 2008. Among Catholics, support dropped from 81 percent to 61 percent.

In particular, revelations that some church officials, including the head of the church in Ireland, sought to silence young victims for decades, have prompted an outcry by Catholics and non-Catholics alike in the United States and Europe. Some critics and bloggers have taken to the Internet to call for the pope to take responsibility for the crisis, while rights groups have staged protests in Washington, London and Rome.

Describing the attacks on the pope as unfair, Lombardi said Benedict has "in fact acted swiftly." Benedict apologized to American Catholics early in his papacy, and he issued an 18-page letter of apology to Irish Catholics this month that sharply reprimanded church leaders for hiding allegations. Lombardi said the apology to the Irish "should also be seen as a letter to Catholics everywhere."

Lombardi maintained that the pope had "no personal responsibility" for cases mishandled in the past and said he had championed greater transparency on abuse cases before ascending to the papacy. The pope's backers have, for instance, cited his 2001 edict as cardinal in charge of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which required bishops to report cases to Rome, as a major policy shift in the church's handling of alleged abuse. They say it was meant to bring to the Vatican's attention cases that dioceses had sought to handle on their own.

Yet that same ruling was interpreted by some bishops as an order to handle cases privately within the church, without going to local authorities. Lombardi on Tuesday said the Vatican did not immediately see the need to require bishops worldwide to alert civil authorities to all abuse cases.

"I don't think the Vatican has to say something very specific on this," Lombardi said. "The church in different countries will follow the legal [codes] of those different countries on when to report these cases to local authorities."

The crisis has also led a number of the pope's critics to raise new questions about the path Benedict has set the church down since becoming pope in 2005. Under Benedict, the church has brought back the Latin Mass in limited form, courted Anglicans disenchanted by the ordination of gay and female bishops and moved toward bestowing sainthood on Pope Pius XII -- who has been criticized for not doing more to denounce the Nazis.

Lombardi said the current crisis would not deter the pope from his broader agenda. "His priorities have not changed," he said, nor have "his convictions."

Special correspondent Sarah Delaney contributed to this report.

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