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Germany

Latest priest sex abuse scandal heats up responsibility debate

As the latest sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church gets uncomfortably close to the pope, questions of punishment versus apology in dealing with pedophile priests have once again emerged.

Joseph Ratzinger

As cardinal, Ratzinger was informed but failed to act in the Murphy case

The Catholic Church says the only way to face the burgeoning numbers of accusations is with complete honesty - and by urging victims to take legal action. Meanwhile, activists say the Church should take more responsibility for its wayward leaders.

Either way, the situation surrounding sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church is like a modern-day Hydra myth - no sooner is one scandal addressed than another rises up to take its place. With Europe's Catholics still reeling from a series of alleged child-molestation cover-ups, news broke in the United States of a 1996 case that touches the upper echelons of Church power.

Failure to defrock

In the latest case to hit headlines, the New York Times reported on Thursday that Pope Benedict XVI ignored allegations of child sex abuse back in the 1990s. At the time, he was head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican body that judges cases of sexual abuse.

Barbara Blaine, left, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, and Barbara Dorris protest in front of the diocesan authorities headquarter in Munich, southern Germany, on Monday, March 22.

Victims recently took to the streets of the Vatican to protest

The paper reported that the pope - then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger - failed to defrock Rev. Lawrence Murphy, a priest in Milwaukee who had been accused of sexually abusing some 200 deaf boys, despite the fact that he was aware of the allegations.

Murphy worked from 1950 to 1977 at a school for the deaf and died in 1998. A spokesman for the Vatican, Federico Lombardi, argued that Rome wasn't informed of the case until 20 years after it happened, and said that in the end the church didn't take action against Murphy because he had confessed the acts and because he was very ill and close to the end of his life.

Records uncovered by the Times show that three different bishops were aware of the accusations, but that the case was not brought to trial. Still, Lombardi told news service Reuters that the church is eager to see abusive priests brought to justice.

Church calls in professional help

This is a feeling shared by Christoph Heckeley, a spokesman for the Archbishopric of Cologne, Germany. The Catholic Church in Germany has had a directive for the past eight years that urges prosecution in sex abuse cases, Heckeley told Deutsche Welle.

"Since 2002 we have a directive from the German Bishops Conference that says what you have to do in case sexual abuse is suspected," Heckeley said.

People with complaints are referred to professionals - psychologists, doctors and legal experts - who are hired by each bishopric, and are qualified to advise people who want to come forward with sex abuse allegations.

View through the window of the Jesuit Canisius school in Berlin, supposedly a site of child abuse by priests

Abuse allegedly took place at some German Jesuit schools

"Our aim is to listen to the victims and help them get justice, even when the cases are years or decades old. They need somebody to listen to them, and the most important thing is that they get justice," he said.

The response from the church will differ case by case, but the church "urgently advises" victims to take perpetrators to court.

Unfortunately, Heckeley said, victims often don't want to do this because it can be too upsetting to their families, and "can destroy their entire social environment - it can traumatize them a second time. You have to be careful."

Prosecution is a right, not an obligation

While there is a right to prosecute, there is no obligation to do so - a situation that is currently under hot debate. Still, Heckeley said experts recommend caution, since "the dangers (of forced prosecution) could outweigh the risks."

No matter what shape the case takes in federal court, allegations of abuse are always looked into by a church tribunal out of Rome. Yet in the Murphy case, Ratzinger's deputy at the time advised a secret disciplinary trial at first. He later reversed that decision, and in 1998, Murphy appealed directly to Ratzinger for clemency, shortly before he died.

All the calls for openness, trials and apologies are well and good, victims-rights advocates say, but they don't go far enough. What is missing on the part of the church is a departure from the secrecy, and a willingness to admit its own cover-ups.

Last week, following revelations of pedophilia that rocked the Irish Catholic Church, the pope issued a long-awaited apology to victims of child sex abuse in Ireland. He acknowledged "serious mistakes" on the part of the church, as well as the sense of betrayal in the Church felt by victims and their families.

Victims' groups start protests

But Irish victims' groups felt that the apology fell short of their demands; they called for the church to acknowledge its role in covering up abuse. Maeve Lewis, executive director of Irish victims' rights group One in Four, told BBC news, "We are really disappointed that there is no acknowledgement that the cover-up and the policy of cover-up in the Church went right to the the Vatican."

Pope Benedict XVI meeting with children during a mass

The pope finally addressed the cases of abuse in Ireland

And in Germany, victims-rights advocates were incensed that the apology failed to mention cases of Church pedophilia in Munich that have dominated headlines for weeks. The Church has had to contend with cover-up allegations in that city while Ratzinger was the city's archbishop from 1977 to 1981.

On Thursday members of the US activist organization SNAP - Survivor Network of those Abused by Priests - launched a demonstration in the Vatican, holding up signs that said "Stop the Secrecy Now."

They demanded that Pope Benedict open up all files on pedophile Catholic clerics worldwide, and called for all "predator priests" to be defrocked. The group has also protested in Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands, all countries recently hit by Church sex abuse scandals.

One official's stance

"I would ask the pope if he would please open up the files from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and turn over all the information to the police," Barbara Blaine, the president of SNAP, told Reuters news service.

A trickle of acknowledgements have begun, and some say a wave may be coming. Earlier this month, the German Church's representative responsible for dealing with cases of abuse, Bishop Stephan Ackermann, also acknowledged severe failures.

"Where there was no will toward explanation and where the person who committed the crime was simply moved to a new post, we have to admit, in a whole array of cases, that there was a cover-up," he told the Rhein Zeitung newspaper.

And this week, German news magazine Focus reported that Archbishop Zollitsch, the leader of the German Roman Catholic Church, also admitted cases of child sex abuse were known and covered up. "Yes, we did have that," he said.

Many see the Catholic Church as so damaged by these allegations that it will be hard for the institution to regain its footing. "We can only survive this situation with openness and honesty," says the Cologne Archbishopric's Heckeley. "We have to try to win people's trust that way."

Author: Jennifer Abramsohn
Editor: Ben Knight

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