Benedict faces true test as churches issue mea culpas

POPE BENEDICT XVI sees the priestly sex scandal as a “test for him and the Church,” his spokesman says, as the Pope and his bishops around Europe used Holy Week’s solemn call for penitence to pledge transparency in dealing with the abuse of children.

Swiss bishops urged victims to consider filing criminal complaints. German bishops opened a hot line for victims. Danish bishops launched an inquiry into decades-old claims. And Austria’s senior cleric, Cardinal Christophe Schoenborn, admitted Church guilt as he presided over a service for victims billed as a sign of repentance.

“Thank you for breaking your silence,” Schoenborn told the victims. “A lot has been broken open. There is less looking away. But there is still a lot to do.”

A week after Pope Benedict XVI excoriated Irish bishops for gross errors of judgment in handling cases of priests who rape children, European bishops one after another admitted to mistakes, reached out to victims, and promised to act when they learn about abuse. Their mea culpas and pledges to be more open and cooperative with police echoed American bishops’ initial responses when the US priest-abuse scandal emerged in 2002. They come amid mounting public outrage over a new wave of abuse claims across Europe and what victims say has been a pattern of cover-up by bishops and the Vatican itself.

And they were all announced during the most solemn week of the Church’s liturgical calendar. As the Swiss bishops noted, Holy Week is a period of penance, when the faithful are supposed to admit their guilt, examine wrongdoing, find ways to improve and ask God and people for forgiveness.

Benedict himself was experiencing a Holy Week of “humility and penitence,” Vatican spokesman the Rev Federico Lombardi told the Associated Press.

Asked how Benedict was responding to the scandal swirling around the Vatican, Lombardi replied: “The Pope is a person of faith. He sees this as a test for him and the Church.”

He stressed, though, that the 82-year-old pontiff was holding up fine physically during the gruelling Holy Week schedule.

Benedict celebrated Holy Thursday Mass at the Vatican, but made no mention of the scandals.

“As priests, we are called in fellowship with Jesus Christ, to be men of peace, we are called to oppose violence and trust in the greater power of love,” Benedict said in his homily in St Peter’s Basilica.

Later, he celebrated an evening Holy Thursday service in which he washed the feet of 12 priests in a symbol of humility. The service commemorates Jesus washing the feet of his 12 apostles before the Last Supper.

After presiding over the Good Friday Way of the Cross commemoration at Rome’s torch-lit Coliseum, Benedict will celebrate a late-night Easter Vigil on Saturday and then Easter on Sunday, when the faithful commemorate Jesus’s resurrection – a time of rebirth and renewal.

On Wednesday, the Church offered its highest-level official response yet to one of the most explosive recent stories regarding sex abuse, on the Church’s decision in the 1990s not to defrock a Wisconsin priest accused of molesting deaf boys. Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said in an article on the Vatican’s Website that a lengthy trial for the Rev Lawrence Murphy would have been “useless” because the priest was dying by the time his diocese initiated a canonical trial.

Levada was critical of The New York Times, which first published details of the decision last week. He said the paper wrongly used the case to find fault in Benedict’s handling of abuse cases. A Times spokeswoman defended the articles and said no one has cast doubt on the reported facts.

While clerical abuse has for years roiled the Church in the US and Ireland, mainland Europe woke up to the issue earlier this year with the first wave of reports from Benedict’s native Germany that boys had been abused at a Church-run school. Since then, hundreds of people have come forward with claims of abuse in Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands and elsewhere.

Swiss bishops admitted Wednesday they had underestimated the problem and are now telling victims to consider filing criminal complaints.

Switzerland is considering creating a central registry of paedophile priests to prevent them from coming into contact with children. Swiss bishops are divided over the proposal.

In Austria, Cardinal Schoenborn, who has taken a lead in denouncing the scandal and demanding reforms, was named Vienna archbishop in 1995, tasked to clean up the mess in the diocese after Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer was forced to resign over allegations he molested youths at a monastery in the 1970s.

Schoenborn announced over the weekend the creation of a Church-funded but independent and clergy-free commission headed by a woman to suggest ways to strengthen Church guidelines for dealing with sexual abuse.

In Switzerland and Germany, bishops are considering mandatory or automatic reporting requirements for bishops.

In Italy, the bishops’ conference ended its annual meeting with a vague pledge of cooperation with civil authorities. Politicians have rallied to defend the Pope as news reports raised questions about his response to abuse cases he oversaw when he held lower positions within the Church.

The measures enacted and promised to date in Europe still fall short of the zero-tolerance policy adopted by US bishops after the clerical abuse scandal exploded in 2002.

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