Vatican lashes out at Pope's critics, denies 'policy of cover-up' existed

Associated Press/March 14, 2010

Vatican City - The Vatican on Saturday denounced what it called aggressive attempts to drag Pope Benedict XVI into the spreading scandals of pedophile priests in his German homeland.

The Vatican's campaign to defend the Pope's reputation and his resolve to combat clergy abuse of minors followed acknowledgment by the Munich archdiocese that it had transferred a suspected pedophile priest to community work while Benedict was archbishop there in the early 1980s.

Benedict is also under fire for a 2001 church directive he wrote while a Vatican cardinal, instructing bishops to keep abuse cases confidential.

Germany's justice minister has blamed the directive for what she called a "wall of silence" preventing prosecution.

But Monsignor Charles Scicluna, the Holy See's so-called prosecutor for clergy sex abuse cases, decried what he called "false and defamatory" contentions that Benedict had promoted a "policy of cover-up."

At the Vatican, rules on handling sexual abuse were "never understood as a ban on making a complaint to civil authorities," Scicluna told the church-affiliated Italian daily Avvenire.

But Irish bishops have said the document was widely taken to mean they shouldn't go to police.

Ireland was the first country in Europe to confront the church's worldwide custom of shielding pedophile priests from the law and public scandal. Now that legacy of suppressed childhood horror is being confronted elsewhere, and victims of abuse are finally breaking social taboos and confronting the clergy to face its demons.

The recent spread of claims into the Netherlands, Austria and Italy has analysts and churchmen wondering how deep the scandal runs, which nation will be touched next.

"You have to presume that the cover-up of abuse exists everywhere, to one extent or another," said David Quinn, director of a Christian think-tank, the Iona Institute, that seeks to promote family values in Ireland.

Quinn noted that stories of systemic physical, sexual and emotional abuse circulated privately in Irish society for decades, but only moved above-ground in the mid-1990s when a former altar boy and an orphanage survivor went public with lawsuits and exposés of how priests and nuns tormented them with impunity.

"A lot comes down to: When does that first victim gather the courage to come forward into the spotlight?" Quinn said. "It seems to take that trigger event, the lone voice who says what so many kept silent so long. That's basically happening now in Germany."

In January, an elite Jesuit school in Berlin declared it was aware of seven child-abuse cases in its past and appointed an outside investigator, Ursula Raue, to seek testimony. Within weeks, she had gathered stories of long-suppressed woe from more than 100 ex-students abused by their Jesuit masters, and from 60 molested by parish priests.

"I always thought that at some point the wave would reach us," said Petra Dorsch-Jungsberger, a commentator on Catholic affairs and retired University of Munich communications professor.

She credited heavy German media coverage of the latest Irish abuse scandal - a November report into decades of cover-up involving about 170 priests - with inspiring similar soul-searching in Germany.

"Once the door had been opened, then many others felt they were able to step up and say: That happened to us, too," she said.

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