Vatican officials defend pope in German abuse scandal

The Vatican sprang to Pope Benedict XVI’s defense Saturday amid accusations that he tried to hush up reports of clergy sexual abuse and failed to adequately punish an offending priest in his native Germany before becoming pontiff.

Senior Vatican officials denounced the allegations as part of a smear campaign against the pope, who they say is committed to confronting the problem and cracking down on abusers.

“The accusations are failed attempts to involve the Holy Father” in the sexual abuse scandals, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said.

But controversy continued to rage in Germany over a serially abusive priest who was returned to a pastoral position during the pope’s tenure as archbishop in the Munich region about 20 years ago. Church officials in the area acknowledge that the decision to reassign the priest was wrong but insist that it was not made by Benedict, who was then Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger.

“These events which are spoken of have been amply clarified by the archdiocese of Munich,” Lombardi said in a brief phone interview.

The scandal in the pontiff’s homeland is one of a wave of emerging crises for the Roman Catholic Church in Europe. A major scandal involving sexual and physical abuse by priests and nuns in Ireland has seriously undermined the church’s authority in that predominantly Roman Catholic nation. More recently, complaints of abuse have surfaced in the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland.

In Saturday’s edition of Avvenire, a newspaper for the Italian bishops’ conference, a Vatican official revealed that over the last decade, the Holy See had investigated 3,000 clerics for alleged abuse, in cases going back as far as 50 years.

Msgr. Charles J. Scicluna, the Vatican’s prosecutor in incidents involving sexual abuse of minors, said that most of the cases were from the United States. But in 2009, the U.S. accounted for only 25% of all new cases reported worldwide.

Benedict, while he was still a cardinal, issued a directive in 2001 telling bishops to keep abuse cases confidential, which critics say contributed to a culture of silence and coverup.

But Lombardi, in an interview with the Vatican’s radio station, rejected that conclusion, saying that the pope “wanted an absolutely rigorous and transparent line on the pedophilia scandals in the church” and was committed to “confront, judge and adequately punish such crimes under ecclesiastical rules.”

In Germany, the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung on Saturday published an interview with a man who said he had been molested as a boy in 1979 by the priest who was eventually returned to a pastoral position after being identified as an abuser.

When the man, identified only as Wilfried F., discovered a few years ago that the priest was still in active service, he sent the priest an e-mail asking whether he felt any guilt for his actions and asking for compensation, the newspaper said.

Police questioned Wilfried F. a few days later about a possible case of blackmail, the newspaper reported. The case was dropped two years ago. But Wilfried F. accused the church of trying to silence him.

In a different case, allegations of abuse of boys in the famous choir in the city of Regensburg have also shocked many Germans. The choir was run for 30 years by the pope’s brother, Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, and some of the abuse allegedly occurred during his time there.

De Cristofaro is a special correspondent.