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(RNS) The Catholic Church in Europe’s widening sexual abuse scandal hit home for Pope Benedict XVI on Friday, as his former archdiocese admitted to making “serious errors” in the case of a priest suspected of molesting a child.
Benedict discussed the spreading scandal with the head of Germany’s Catholic bishops on Friday (March 12), hours before it drew closer than ever to the pontiff himself, as the Archdiocese of Munich, where Benedict was archbishop from 1977-1982, released a statement acknowledging it had reassigned an accused sex abuser in 1980.
Benedict, then known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was archbishop at the time, but Munich’s statement said that an underling, former Vicar General Gerhard Gruber, had taken “full responsibility” for the decision.
Six years after his reassignment to a parish, the priest, identified only as H., was convicted of sexually abusing minors in another jurisdiction. He is still an active priest, according Suddeutsche Zeitung, the German newspaper that broke the story.
An advocate for abuse victims in the U.S. voiced skepticism about the archdiocese’s assertion that Benedict had not approved the abuser’s reassignment to pastoral work.
“It boggles the mind,” said Barbara Blaine, president and founder of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “We can’t think of a single case anywhere on the planet where a credibly accused predator priest was put back around kids and no one asked or told the top diocesan official.”
Earlier on Friday, Benedict met with Archbishop Robert Zollitsch of Freiburg, president of the German bishops’ conference, for a briefing on the state of the church in Germany. While the meeting had been previously scheduled, clearly the most urgent topic in their 45-minute conversation was the growing number of sex abuse allegations.
At least 170 abuse allegations have emerged this year involving children at German Catholic schools, prompting an investigation by prosecutors.
Even before Friday, the growing scandal had already reached the pope’s own family. Church officials in Germany confirmed last week that a former member of a boys choir directed for 30 years by the pope’s elder brother, Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, had allegedly been sexually abused. Ratzinger, who was not himself accused, said he was unaware of any history of sex abuse and would be willing to testify to prosecutors.
At a Vatican press conference on Friday, Zollitsch said German bishops will examine all cases of alleged abuse, “even those that happened a long time ago.”
Zollitsch said trials of accused perpetrators by church tribunals were not intended to supersede or influence criminal trials by civil authorities.
That statement seemed to answer criticism from German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, who denounced the church’s “wall of silence” around sex abuse. She cited a 2001 letter signed by then-Cardinal Ratzinger, reserving preliminary investigation of abuse charges for the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Zollitsch also said the Vatican has been collecting information on the experiences of bishops’ conferences in various countries, as a possible basis for global disciplinary norms.
The German scandal comes only months after the release of two government-sponsored reports of widespread clerical sex abuse in Ireland, and amid increasingly numerous charges of abuse in other European countries, including Austria and the Netherlands.
Last month, Benedict met with all 24 serving Irish bishops to discuss his forthcoming pastoral letter to Irish Catholics, which will be Benedict’s first major document devoted to clerical sex abuse. The Vatican says the letter will be released before Easter.
The spate of recent revelations has raised expectations that the pope will address the problem of clerical sex abuse in the entire Catholic Church. Germany’s Cardinal Walter Kasper suggested that Benedict’s letter might offer a “more general analysis, that might even embrace the universal church and not just one nation.”
One expert on the abuse scandal in the American church expects a strong and substantive papal document on Ireland.
“I think (the pope) does get it,” said Nicholas P. Cafardi, a professor at Duquesne Law School. “Benedict is taking this much more seriously than it was taken before.”
Cafardi, who sat on the committee that developed child abuse prevention policies for the U.S. Catholic bishops in 2002, said he hopes the pope will amend church law to make clerical sex abusers ineligible to continue ministering as priests, facilitating their removal even without a criminal conviction.
No less urgent, Cafardi said, is the need for Benedict to take a firm stand against bishops who ignore or conceal sex abuse.
Four present or former auxiliary bishops in Ireland have offered to resign after last November’s Murphy Commission Report, which uncovered a three-decade pattern of abuse and cover-up in the Archdiocese of Dublin.
So far, Benedict has accepted only one resignation, of Donal B. Murray of Limerick.
The growing evidence in Europe of what some once dismissed as an American problem has emboldened the church’s critics in Europe, the world’s most secular continent.
Some European commentators have invoked the scandals to argue against priestly celibacy and an all-male clergy, and their arguments have drawn recognition in some surprising quarters.
In a recent newspaper article calling for “unflinching examination” of the possible causes of pedophilia, Vienna’s Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, a former student of Pope Benedict, referred to priestly celibacy as one of the topics to be addressed — though he quickly denied through a spokesman that he was raising the possibility of a married priesthood.
This week, the official Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, published an article arguing that placing more women in positions of church authority could rend the “veil of masculine secrecy” that permitted cover-ups of sex abuse.
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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