Dublin Pope Benedict XVI addressed Ireland today in a letter apologizing for the sex abuse scandal here — a message being watched closely by Catholics from Boston to Berlin to see if it also acknowledges decades of Vatican-approved cover-ups.
The church is only beginning to come to terms with decades of child abuse in its parishes and schools. The scandals first emerged in Canada and Australia in the 1980s, followed by Ireland in the 1990s, the United States this decade and, in recent months, Benedict’s German homeland.
Victims’ rights activists say that to begin mending the church’s battered image, Benedict’s message — his first pastoral letter on child abuse in the church — must break his silence on the role of the Catholic hierarchy in shielding pedophile clergy from prosecution.
That includes abuses committed decades ago under the pope’s watch, when he was Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger of Munich, as well as the pontiff’s role in hushing up the scandals.
As leader of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger was responsible for a 2001 Vatican edict that instructed bishops to report all cases of child abuse to Vatican authorities under strict secrecy; it made no mention of reporting crimes to police.
“Is it not time for Pope Benedict XVI himself to acknowledge his share of responsibility?” said the Rev. Hans Kung, a Swiss priest and dissident Catholic theologian.
“Honesty demands that Joseph Ratzinger himself, the man who for decades has been principally responsible for the worldwide cover-up, at last pronounce his own mea culpa,” Kung said.
Benedict, who served as archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1982, has yet to speak about the hundreds of abuse cases emerging since January in Germany.
These include the Rev. Peter Hullermann, who was already suspected of abusing boys in the western German city of Essen when Ratzinger approved his transfer to Munich for treatment in 1980.
There, Hullermann was allowed contact with children almost immediately after his therapy began. He was again accused of molesting boys and was convicted in 1986 of sexual abuse. He was suspended this week for ignoring a 2008 church order not to work with youths.
Dirk Taenzler, director of the Federation for German Catholic Youth, said his members were appalled by the revelations of abuse in church-run schools and choirs — and wondered why the pope had yet to address his fellow Germans.
“Everyone is suffering from the church’s bad image,” Taenzler said. “It is an issue in every congregation and everyone is trying to cope.”
Benedict’s successor in Munich, Archbishop Reinhard Marx, said the pope’s letter to Ireland “will of course affect us. The pope always speaks for everyone. It is not ... for specific groups or countries. That word will also be important for us.”
Marx said the pope should not be expected to take responsibility for abuses committed by individual priests. “We expect the pope to take a stand on everything every time, but we are responsible for what happens here,” he said.
In the United States, where several dioceses have been driven to bankruptcy amid abuse lawsuits, activists called on the pope to be candid about his own failings — and for bishops to be held accountable.
“So far the church hierarchy has been very short on accountability. They’ve had to be pushed to come clean about their responsibility for anything,” said Dan Bartley, president of Voice of the Faithful, a Catholic lay group that lobbies for reform within the church. “He needs to call for any bishops involved in the Irish crisis to resign. But unfortunately we’re not expecting that.”