Friday, March 26, 2010

Pope May Be at Crossroads on Abuse, Forced to Reconcile Policy and Words

Pope May Be at Crossroads on Abuse, Forced to Reconcile Policy and Words

© The New York Times 2010

ROME — Even as Pope Benedict XVI, faced with a sexual abuse scandal spreading across Europe, has called on victims to come forward and urged clerics to cooperate with civil justice, those strong words are running up against the complexities of his past.

“He is at a crossroads,” said Marco Politi, a veteran Italian Vatican journalist. “What’s extraordinary is that the scandal has reached the heart of the center of the church. Up to now it was far away — in the States, in Canada, in Brazil, in Australia. Then it came to Europe, to Ireland.

“Then it came to his motherland,” Mr. Politi added of Benedict’s native Germany. “Then it came to his diocese, and now it’s coming to the heart of the government of the church — and he has to give an answer.”

Last weekend, in a heartfelt letter to Irish Catholics reeling from reports of decades of systemic sexual abuse, Benedict apologized but did not discipline any church leaders who had covered up abuses, fueling growing anger in Ireland.

Mr. Politi said the pope in his letter had “set a very rigorous line: The search for truth, full transparency, listening to victims, punishing guilt and deference to state courts. The issue now is how he will handle the past.”

As archbishop of Munich and Freising from 1977 to 1982, the future pope approved the transfer to Munich for psychiatric treatment of a priest who had sexually abused boys. The priest, the Rev. Peter Hullermann, was quickly returned to pastoral work with children. This month, a subordinate took responsibility for the decision, although internal church documents show that Benedict, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was copied on a memorandum informing him of the transfer. Benedict has not addressed the issue.

In 1998, top Vatican officials, including the future pope, did not defrock a priest who molested as many as 200 deaf boys in Wisconsin, according to internal church documents obtained by The New York Times from lawyers who are suing church officials. The decision came after the priest, the Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy, appealed to Cardinal Ratzinger for leniency.

The Vatican has said that the abuse dated back decades and that Father Murphy’s age and ill health were reason enough not to dismiss him from the clergy.

Benedict’s defenders tend to see the crisis as an elaborate personal attack on the pope.

In an unsigned editorial on Thursday, L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, criticized The Times for an article published Thursday on the abuse issue. The Italian editorial said that Benedict had always handled such cases with “transparency, purpose and severity,” and accused the news media of acting “with the clear and ignoble intent of trying to strike Benedict and his closest collaborators at any cost.”

On Friday, writing in The Times of London, Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster and leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, catalogued Benedict’s efforts to combat the abuse of minors.

“When he was in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith he led important changes made in church law: the inclusion in canon law of internet offences against children, the extension of child abuse offences to include the sexual abuse of all under 18, the case by case waiving of the statue of limitation and the establishment of a fast-track dismissal from the clerical state for offenders.

“He is not an idle observer,” the Archbishop wrote. “His actions speak as well as his words.”

Yet as dioceses in Germany, the Netherlands and elsewhere have opened investigations in recent weeks and set up e-mail addresses where victims can come forward, attention is growing on how the Vatican — and Benedict — will proceed.

“Now he has to decide: either he goes ahead with a policy of transparency, or he goes back to an old line, saying that these are old cases, that not punishing the perpetrators is an act of mercy,” Mr. Politi said.

After sexual abuse cases rocked the American church in 2002 and 2003, Cardinal Ratzinger developed a reputation for investigating such cases more rigorously than his more popular predecessor, John Paul II.

“I find it very paradoxical, because the polemics are against a person who not only today but also in the past consistently fought this with more vigor than anyone else,” said Sandro Magister, a longtime Vatican journalist in Italy.

Mr. Magister noted that in one high-profile case, Cardinal Ratzinger ultimately opened a previously suspended investigation into the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the Mexican founder of the Legionaries of Christ, a religious order.

After it emerged that Father Maciel had sexually abused seminarians and fathered several children, the Vatican ordered a rare special investigation into all Legionaries communities, seminaries, and schools worldwide, which was completed just this month. Its findings remain secret. Father Maciel died in 2008, still a priest, but having been ordered by the Vatican to live in seclusion and contemplation.

As abuse cases from the United States flooded across the future pope’s desk a decade ago, advisers said that he was struck by the depth of the crisis. On his first visit to the United States as pope in 2008, Benedict said he was “ashamed” of the sexual abuse scandal, adding, “It is a great suffering for the church in the United States and for the church in general, for me personally, that this could happen.”

In Washington on that same trip, he cited the top bishop of the United States, who had said the situation was “sometimes very badly handled.”

And he met with abuse victims — something he said in his letter to Irish Catholics he would be willing to do again.

On Thursday, members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, an American advocacy group, held an impromptu news conference in St. Peter’s Square, holding up pictures of Father Murphy and calling on the Vatican to take responsibility.

“They’re not holding themselves accountable, and these documents show they were very involved in the case,” said John Pilmaier, the group’s Wisconsin director.

Twenty minutes into the news conference, the Rome police told the group that it did not have a proper permit, and brought organizers in for questioning. They were detained for two and a half hours. “We’ve spent more time in police custody than most of these pedophile priests have,” Mr. Pilmaier said.

In addition to the protest in Rome, the group, called SNAP, demonstrated Thursday in Washington, Chicago, Milwaukee and in the northern Wisconsin town of Boulder Junction, where Father Murphy lived for many years before he died in 1998.

Mary Guentner, director of the Milwaukee chapter, who helped organize the Chicago protest, said, “The two main responses here are shock at the number of victims, and the fact that Ratzinger was heavily involved.

“What’s different here is that Archbishop Weakland did go to the Vatican,” she said, referring to a former head of the Milwaukee Archdiocese. “He did not do enough. He did very little. But what we now know is that the Vatican doesn’t even listen to their own hierarchy.”

But some Catholics said Benedict was being unfairly blamed. On her way into the afternoon Mass at Our Lady of Good Hope, a Catholic parish in Milwaukee, Freida Mueller, 74, said: “I think the pope is a good man. I believe a lot of people are in this because they want to get an extra something out of the church.”

“There are people out there doing pretty disgusting things in other religions,” she added. “They’re only after the Catholic Church.”

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