Mounting anger at the Catholic Church’s failure to act on predatory priests in the US, Europe and Mexico has plunged the papacy into an institutional crisis described by an American Catholic newspaper last week as “the largest in centuries”.
Yesterday the Vatican denounced the “aggressive persistence” of critics who were attempting to “involve the Holy Father personally in the matter of abuse”.
A spokesman told Vatican Radio that the Pope’s record was “above discussion”.
Yet the talk in Catholic circles was of little else as the Pope’s former life as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, archbishop of Munich and senior Vatican administrator, came under intensifying scrutiny.
Last week it was alleged that, as head of the Vatican office monitoring priestly misconduct, Ratzinger failed to punish Father Lawrence Murphy, who abused up to 200 boys at a Wisconsin school for the deaf.
Instead of being defrocked or reported to police, Murphy remained a priest until his death in 1998.
“We are talking about a man who, before he became Pope, knew what Murphy was doing and did nothing about it,” said Donald Marshall, a mechanic who claims Murphy assaulted him in 1977 when he was 13. “The Pope is a fraud and a hypocrite.”
The reports coincided with a burgeoning German row over Father Peter Hullermann, a Bavarian priest who received therapy for paedophilia in Ratzinger’s diocese and was transferred to a new parish, where he continued molesting boys.
The Vatican insisted on Friday that Ratzinger “had no knowledge” of the decision to reassign Hullermann, despite reports that the archbishop, as he was then, was sent a memo with details of the case. Hullermann was eventually convicted of sex abuse in 1986.
Adding to the Vatican’s embarrassment was the acknowledgement on Friday by a prominent Catholic order that its Mexican founder, the late Marcial Maciel Degollado, known as Father Maciel, had not only molested trainee priests but had also fathered several children.
In fact, it was largely on Ratzinger’s initiative that the Vatican reopened a moribund investigation into Maciel’s activities as leader of the Legion of Christ.
Maciel was a close friend of Ratzinger’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who is considered a candidate for sainthood but whose reputation may also be stained by the spreading sex scandal.
All the latest cases involve complaints that the Vatican has failed to come clean about how it handled allegations of criminal conduct.
Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, the German justice minister, has spoken of a Vatican “wall of silence” around the issue.
The Pope’s alleged role in the Wisconsin case emerged only when litigants who claim to be victims of abuse obtained internal church documents as part of their lawsuit.
US lawyers in other cases are now determined to sue the Vatican for access to material that may shed light on relations between Rome and American bishops and the extent to which there may have been a policy to hush up abuse by priests.
“I want to know what the Vatican knew and when they knew it,” said William McMurry, who represents victims in a Kentucky case that may end up with a case from Oregon in the US Supreme Court.
McMurry told The Washington Post: “We’re trying to get what’s never been uncovered before — documents only the Vatican has. I want to know ... what they instructed US bishops to do. That’s the linchpin of liability.”
As a sovereign state, the Vatican has immunity from US lawsuits. Yet federal appeals courts in Oregon and Kentucky have allowed abuse cases to proceed.
Judges in the Kentucky case ruled that an exception to diplomatic immunity might be granted if the Vatican was deemed to have employees in the United States who had caused harm.
“The Vatican operates with such insularity and arrogance,” complained Jeff Anderson, a lawyer who has worked on the Oregon case.
“They remain legally impenetrable. But this is the first foot in the door.”
The US Catholic Church has already paid out more than $1.1 billion to victims since 2004.
Yet many insist that financial compensation is not enough and that the church should be forced to explain why so few priests were punished for decades of abuse.
“Benedict should make public all the files of every case they’ve had,” said Peter Isely, the Milwaukee-based director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.
“We’re talking about a conspiracy at the highest level to cover up child sex crimes.”
Donald Marshall recalled the moment that Murphy came into his room, sat next to him and started reading the Bible.
“Then he put his hand on my knee, then he started kissing me ... and started to fondle me. I was completely shocked, to say the least. I was just a 13-year-old kid.”
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