Sunday, March 28, 2010

Pope 'is at centre of Vatican abuse cover-up', says Hans Küng

One of Europe’s leading theological thinkers has accused the Pope of being complicit in a Vatican cover-up of child abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church.

“No one in the whole of the Catholic Church knows as much about abuse cases – knowledge that is ex officio, derived from his office,” Hans Küng said in an interview with Swiss television.

Professor Küng – a long-standing critic of the Vatican – said that the Pope’s involvement in hiding clerical molestation of children dated back at least to his 24 years as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome .

“This Vatican authority has for a long time centralised [information about] all abuse cases so that they can be concealed, classified as top secret,” the 82-year old Swiss theologian said.

He has been a close observer of Joseph Ratzinger – now Pope Benedict XVI – since they were theology professors at the University of Tübingen in the 1960s. Both were theological advisers to the Second Vatican Council, which concluded in 1965.

Professor Küng’s clinching piece of documentary evidence against his old university colleague is contained in a diocesal letter, dated March 18, 2001, on child abuse, “De delictis gravioribus” (“about serious offences”). Signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the document establishes guidelines for dealing with priests suspected of abuse:

“In tribunals established by ordinaries or hierarchs, the functions of judge, promoter of justice, notary and legal representative can validly be performed for these cases only by priests. When the trial in the tribunal is finished in any fashion, all the acts of the case are to be transmitted ex officio as soon as possible to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith," it says.

Professor Küng argues that the Pope is acting hypocritically by calling bishops to order because for the past ten years such offences have been officially regulated behind closed doors.

“He cannot now wag his finger at the bishops and say 'you did not do enough!' He gave the instructions himself – as boss of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and again as Pope.”

The Vatican has argued that it is a serious misunderstanding to cast the 2001 document as part of the Church’s supposed “culture of silence”.

A German church official tried to play down Professor Küng’s utterances, arguing in essence that the theologian has "form” with the Pope.

After their stint in Tübingen together, Hans Küng and Joseph Ratzinger went separate ways: Professor Ratzinger, upset at the radical questioning of doctrine during the 1968 student disturbances, moved to the more conservative Regensburg; Professor Küng began openly to question the infallibility of the Pope and urge a discussion about the celibacy of priests.

In 1979 the Vatican stripped him of his right to teach Catholic theology.

But Professor Küng remains a morally powerful figure in Europe – even Tony Blair came to Tübingen to pay his respects – and his highlighting of the 2001 document has fed into a public debate in Germany about how much the Pope knows personally about the abuse cases.

Only 17 per cent of Germans still trust the Catholic Church, according to a study by the FORSA sampling institute. At the end of January, 29 per cent of Germans trusted the Church and 38 per cent trusted the Bavarian-born Pope Benedict.

“Abuse: what did the Pope know?” was the front page headline of Der Tagesspiegel on Thursday – next to a picture of the 2001 document.

It is clear that the Pope certainly knew about the practice of transferring paedophile priests form parish to parish.

As Archbishop Ratzinger, head of the Diocesan Council of Munich, he presided over a meeting on January 15, 1980 that discussed the case of Father Peter Hullermann.

Father Hullermann had forced an 11-year-old to have oral sex and had assaulted three other children. The parents had been persuaded not to press charges and the police had not been informed. Instead he was supposed to be moved out of the diocese of Essen, to Archbishop Ratzinger’s territory in southern Germany.

Archbishop Ratzinger formally approved the transfer and ordered him to undergo therapy. Again, the police were not informed. Within a fortnight however the chaplain was taking on pastoral duties again. Whether the Archbishop knew of this is unclear.

Advice from Father Hullermann's therapist that the priest should not be allowed to work with children, and should be under close supervision, was ignored by the Archbishop's staff.

Over the next two decades, Father Hullermann persistently re-offended. Only once did it come to court: in 1986 he was given an 18-month suspended prison sentence. By this time, Cardinal Ratzinger was established in Rome and presumably was not following the details of Father Hullermann’s career.

Informally, on his regular visits to his brother Georg – choirmaster of the Regensburger Domspatzen – he may have heard reports of abuse. Georg Ratzinger himself says that he had “heard stories” about the boarding school in Etterzhausen that prepared children for the choir. No action was taken.

Through the 1990s, a pattern seems to have established itself in both Cardinal Ratzinger's Vatican department, but also in the dioceses: priests who abused children had sinned, were required to repent and needed help and solidarity from within the Church.

Open trial and imprisonment would hurt the church as an institution. The option of defrocking an offending priest was also only rarely applied. This week's revelations about an American priest who molested up to 200 deaf pupils falls into this category: proceedings leading to a canonical trial against the priest were broken off after he applied for leniency to Cardinal Ratzinger in 1996.

But by 2001 enough accounts of priestly abuse worldwide were reaching Rome to justify the drafting of a diocesal letter and the definition of child abuse as a grave offence.

The letter was, on the one hand, an affirmation of existing practice: that is, internal disciplining of errant priests. And on the other hand, a clear centralisation of information in Rome.

The Vatican wanted not only an overview but also control. Yet critics say that no significant action was taken on the accumulated information.

It should have been plain, at least from 2001, that Irish paedophile priests were being moved to US parishes.

That information must have been available to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. And to its head, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

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