Pope Benedict XVI has opened the church’s solemn Holy Week amid increasing questions about his own handling of cases of sexual abuse of children by priests.
Benedict’s procession entered St Peter’s Square today at the start of Palm Sunday Mass.
The pontiff, in crimson and golden vestments, waved to the throngs of faithful waving palm fronds and olive branches.
Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, and is the start of the church’s Holy Week, which includes the Good Friday re-enactment of Christ’s crucifixion and death and his resurrection on Easter Sunday.
This year, the most solemn week on the liturgical calendar has been stained by one of the worst church crises in decades.
The Vatican said recent attacks on the church over its handling of clerical sex abuse cases were harmful, but insisted the pope’s authority was not weakened.
Instead, the Vatican spokesman said, Pope Benedict XVI’s authority and the commitment of the Vatican doctrinal and disciplinary office “have been confirmed in their support and guidance to bishops to combat and root out the blight of abuse wherever it appears.
“The way in which the church deals with it is crucial for her moral credibility,” said the spokesman, the Father Federico Lombardi, in a comment on Vatican Radio.
Revelations of the sexual abuse of children by priests at Catholic institutions swept across Europe and into Benedict’s native Germany.
The pope himself came under fire for a case dating to his tenure as archbishop of Munich and another dating to his stint as the head of the Vatican office responsible for disciplining priests.
Cardinal Walter Kasper, a top Vatican official, acknowledged in an interview published yesterday that church authorities had on occasion maintained silence over cases of sex abuse.
But he defended the pope, saying Benedict “was the first one who – already as a cardinal – felt the need for new, harsher rules”.
Attacks on the pope go “beyond any limit of justice and loyalty,” Cardinal Kasper told Corriere della Sera.
The cardinal, however, called for a cleanup and said the church must be more alert and brave in dealing with any sex abuse. He said a growing awareness of the problem makes the path of renewal “irreversible.”
“We need a culture of attentiveness and courage, and a housecleaning,” Cardinal Kasper, also a German, said in the interview.
Until recently, Benedict received high marks for his handling of sex abuse.
Taking a much harder stance than his predecessor, John Paul II, Benedict disciplined a senior cleric who had been championed by the Polish pontiff and defrocked others under a new policy of zero tolerance.
But reaction changed after a case that involved the Father Peter Hullermann, accused of abusing boys, and his transfer to the pope’s former archdiocese of Munich.
While Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now the pontiff, was involved in a 1980 decision to transfer Hullermann to Munich for therapy, his then-deputy took responsibility for a subsequent decision to let the priest return to pastoral duties. Hullermann was convicted of sexual abuse in 1986.
However, The New York Times reported that Cardinal Ratzinger was copied in on a memo stating Hullermann would be returned to pastoral work within days of beginning psychiatric treatment. The archdiocese insisted Cardinal Ratzinger was unaware of the decision and that any other version was “mere speculation”.
Cardinal Kasper said in the interview that “especially in big dioceses, I have the impression that bishops were often not informed, unfortunately”. He said this needed to change, along with the process of selection at seminars.