Vatican Moves into Damage Control on Sex-Abuse Scandal

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Gregorio Borgia / Reuters

Pope Benedict XVI delivers his message during his visit at Rome's Lutheran church on March 14, 2010

Amid controversy, the Vatican's instinct is typically to protect the man at the top, particularly when it comes to what is known in both secular and ecclesiastical terms as scandal. That is evident again with a pedophile-priest controversy from the 1980s in Germany that is threatening to draw in the German-born Benedict XVI, even as his countrymen demand that he respond directly. "The Pope was not part of what happened back then, and he shouldn't be part of it now," a Vatican insider tells TIME. "He should offer the greatest silence possible, not because he doesn't care about the abuse but because it would involve him in scandal and undermine his magisterium" — that is, his papal teaching authority. Indeed, the officials at the Vatican have characterized the German revelations as a targeted campaign to discredit the Church as a whole.

It is instructive to look back to a previous episode of the Church's attempts at damage control, in April 2002, when a similar clergy-sex-abuse storm was ravaging the U.S. Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II summoned all the American Cardinals to Rome for an urgent meeting on the crisis. It was an unprecedented public acknowledgment of the gravity of the situation from the typically insulated Vatican leadership. But reporters who made the trip from Boston, the epicenter of the scandal, were hardly impressed with the Vatican openness. When the postsummit briefing included five senior Church officials but not the embattled leader of the Boston Archdiocese, a Massachusetts TV reporter barked out a question demanding the whereabouts of Cardinal Bernard Law: "When is the Cardinal going to resign?" The Cardinal would step down months later. But he has never given a full accounting of his role in the episode.

In some sense, the dynamic from eight years ago is still in play. Back then, both the American hierarchy and the Roman Curia struggled to respond to a spiraling series of revelations while resisting calls for heads to roll among those Church leaders judged responsible for their poor handling of abusive priests. But what makes the current situation particularly delicate is that the head that some critics want served up is none other than that of the Pope himself. A senior Vatican official who worked directly with the Pope while he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger says the Pontiff's daily routine continues as always. "The spectacle in the newspapers makes me angry but does not discourage me. We continue our work with serenity. But it does pain us to know that the Holy Father is suffering."

As the Pope suffers in silence, Catholics in his native Germany are growing increasingly angry as revelations pile up. They were first set off by accusations from former students at a prestigious Jesuit high school in Berlin. But much of the attention has now shifted to the case of Father H, the name the German media is using for the priest who sexually abused minors in the late 1970s and was transferred to Munich in 1980, initially for treatment, but later allowed to return to full pastoral duties. The man at the helm of the Munich Archdiocese at the time of Father H's arrival was Ratzinger, who moved on to Rome in 1982 to become a senior Vatican official and eventually rose to the papacy in 2005 with the name Benedict XVI.

Church officials in Munich have confirmed that in 1986, Father H was convicted of sexually abusing children in the Bavarian town of Grafing — and was then allowed to again work among children, though no further accusations of abuse have arisen since. Vatican officials have denied that the future Pope knew anything about Father H's being allowed to work with children again, and his deputy at the time quickly took full responsibility last week for the transfer. On Monday, March 15, Father H was suspended from his current position, and his supervisor, Prelate Josef Obermaier, resigned. For some Catholic faithful in Germany, however, the case must be addressed directly by the Pope. "The Holy Father needs to say something about this," Dirk Taenzler, head of the Federation of German Catholic Youth, told the daily Berliner Zeitung. The Vatican is expected to release a letter soon regarding similar abuse cases that hit Ireland in the past decade. It is not clear whether the document will mention either Germany in general or the Munich case in particular.

It is hard to predict what the the Pope will do, or what will happen next. Cardinal Law's fate may offer insights but no real parallels, even though Cardinal Ratzinger held the same position in Munich as Law held in Boston. Law was a very high Prince of the Church when the Boston scandal broke, but Ratzinger is now the Supreme Pontiff. No one should expect a papal resignation — indeed, both as Vatican Cardinal and as Pontiff, Benedict has been more responsive than many of his colleagues on clergy sex abuse. Still, the Church's history of silence is galling to the faithful. Law's reticence to speak up and take full responsibility only deepened the pain of the victims and anger of the faithful. And those seeking justice in Law's story will find little to satisfy them. After he finally stepped down in shame from his Boston post, he lost much of his influence. But Cardinal Law wound up in the highly prestigious role of Archpriest of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, one of the oldest and most beautiful properties of the Holy See.