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By FRANCIS X. ROCCA (RNS) When the Archdiocese of Munich admitted last Friday (March 12) to “serious errors” in the case of a priest suspected of molesting a child, it flatly exonerated the man who had served as archbishop at the time, Joseph Ratzinger.
Ratzinger, of course, is now Pope Benedict XVI, and the scores of molestation cases erupting across Europe are prompting questions about Ratzinger’s response to the problem, both before and after he was elected pope.
Gerhard Gruber, the former vicar general in Munich, said he took “full responsibility” for the 1980 decision to reassign the Rev. Peter Hullermann to another parish, even though he had been accused of sex abuse.
Six years after his return to pastoral work, Hullermann was convicted of sexually abusing minors; Hullermann was suspended Monday (March 15) by the Archdiocese of Munich.
Advocates for abuse victims and other critics say they find it hard to believe that then-Cardinal Ratzinger did not personally approve Hullermann’s reassignment. Benedict’s defenders insist it would not be unusual for an archbishop in a large diocese to delegate such decisions to an underling.
Whatever Ratzinger knew or did not know in that particular case, he went on to acquire deep knowledge of clerical sex abuse in general, long before the latest spate of revelations across Europe. That expertise evidently impressed him with the gravity of the scandal, and has shaped his approach to it as pope.
In 2001, Pope John Paul II gave Ratzinger, who had been plucked from Munich in 1982 to head the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the task of overseeing the discipline of clerical sex abusers.
Early on, Ratzinger seemed to suggest the problem might be overplayed. In 2002, he said he was “personally convinced that the constant presence in the press of the sins of Catholic priests, especially in the United States, is a planned campaign” since abuse was no more an occupational hazard in the priesthood than in other professions.
Yet in practice, Ratzinger’s defenders say, his office faced the problem head-on.
In a rare interview last week with the Italian Catholic daily Avvenire, Monsignor Charles J. Scicluna, the CDF official in charge of sex abuse investigations, said that a staff of 10 has examined and responded to accusations against some 3,000 alleged abusers over the last 10 years, with the heaviest caseload coming from the U.S. in the years 2003-2004.
One in five accused priests were defrocked, Scicluna said; 60 percent were disciplined with limitations on their activity as priests; and 20 percent were tried in church courts, resulting in an unspecified number of convictions.
According to Benedict’s biographer, John L. Allen, writing in “The Rise of Benedict XVI,” exposure to the gory details of molestation cases gave Ratzinger a “new appreciation for the gravity of the situation, and the need for a firm response from church authority.”
That experience also seemed to color Ratzinger’s Good Friday remarks in March 2005, a few weeks before he was elected pope, in which we deplored the “filth in the church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to (Christ)!”
Still, critics have charged that Ratzinger preserved a culture of silence that allowed bishops to cover up for abusive priests. In 2001, Ratzinger told bishops around the world that the CDF held jurisdiction over all sex abuse cases, a move that has proven especially controversial.
That letter was cited in a Texas lawsuit brought against Ratzinger by three alleged victims, who charged that the document’s imposition of “pontifical secret” on abuse cases showed Ratzinger had conspired to conceal pedophilia in the church. (The Department of Justice ruled in
2005 that Benedict’s status as a head of state gave him diplomatic immunity in that suit.)
Just last week, German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger cited the same letter in denouncing what she called the church’s “wall of silence” over sex abuse. Church officials insist that the document was never intended to impede criminal proceedings by civil authorities.
Since his election in 2005, Benedict has spoken publicly about sex abuse more than half a dozen times.
En route to the U.S. in April 2008, the pope told reporters that he was “ashamed” of clerical sex abuse of children, and would “do everything possible” to prevent it in the future. During his stop in Washington, he met with and apologized to a group of American abuse victims, and told the U.S. bishops that the crisis had been “sometimes very badly handled.”
According to Nicholas P. Cafardi, a member of the committee that developed abuse prevention policies for the U.S. bishops in 2002, Benedict has taken clerical sex abuse “much more seriously” than his predecessor.
One sign of change was the Vatican’s treatment of the Rev. Marcel Maciel, the founder of the conservative Legionaries of Christ movement that rose to favor under John Paul. In 1997, nine former Legionaries accused Maciel of sexually abusing them decades earlier, when they were studying to become priests under his authority.
Benedict, who investigated the charges as a cardinal, has never publicly addressed them; but a year into Benedict’s papacy, the Vatican announced that Maciel had been ordered to lead a “life reserved to prayer and penitence, renouncing all public ministry.”
In 2009, following revelations that Maciel had fathered at least one illegitimate child, the Vatican launched a full-scale investigation of the movement. Investigators concluded their work this month, but have yet to present a report.
In a sharp contrast to John Paul’s relatively hands-off approach, Benedict summoned all 24 serving Irish bishops in February to discuss priestly abuse that was detailed in two Irish government-sponsored reports released last year. A similar 2002 meeting between John Paul and U.S. cardinals had taken place only at the Americans’ request.
Benedict is expected to release a pastoral letter on sex abuse sometime before Easter; Cafardi said it will be the first major papal document on clerical sex abuse in modern times. The recent cases in Germany, the Netherlands and Austria have many expecting that the pope’s letter will address the issue well beyond the scandal-scarred Irish church.
“I believe (the letter) will be yet another example of his clear and decisive voice,” said a top Vatican official, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, in an interview published Monday (March 15) in the Milan daily Corriere Della Sera.
“These cases cast a shadow over the whole church and we bishops have to deal with them with maximum seriousness,” Fisichella said. “The zero tolerance demanded by the pope is not an optional, it is a moral imperative.”
Copyright 2010 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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