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Pope Benedict calls for Catholic church penance, but questions about reform persist

Pope Benedict XVI said it's 'necessary to perform penance' in response to public outrage at revelations of sexual abuse by Catholic priests. But some analysts say those hoping for change are up against a deeply conservative hierarchy.

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At a Catholic chapel in downtown Paris, among many rank and file priests and nuns, a call for the pope to resign or for major rethinking of church policy is heard as something like a call to change the rings of Saturn. It’s incomprehensible and alien.

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“The church is rooted in Christ, and that isn’t changing,” says a priest from Moulins, in central France, who is planning to visit the Vatican next week with 10 priests and the local bishop to show support. A nun, Sister Asuncion, when asked about "the crisis," mainly thought the question was about the lack of Catholic churchgoers in Europe.

Indeed, the crisis is playing out against a policy dating back to 1981 when Benedict, then Cardinal Ratzinger, took over the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and began systematically rousting church liberals who support the more open and transparent church model advocated by Vatican II, the church council in the 1960s that advocated sweeping ecumenical reform.

Many current traditionalists including the Vatican's No. 2, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, are known to see the abuse crisis as a stalking horse for liberals to push changes that would treat the church as more human, and less divine. Cardinal Bertone this week made headlines arguing that pedophilia stemmed from homosexuality, not the celibacy Catholic priests accept.

Marginalized moderates

Frank Flinn, a Catholic theologian at Washington University in St. Louis and author of an encyclopedia of Catholicism, says Vatican dynamics under Benedict has marginalized moderates “similarly to the way moderates are marginalized in the Republican party today by the conservative wing.”

The appointment April 12 by Pope Benedict of an Opus Dei bishop, Jose Gomez, to lead the Los Angeles archdiocese, the largest in the US, is one example of circling the traditionalist wagons. Opus Dei is a deeply traditional group and its leaders have closed ties to Pope Benedict and his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

Mr. Gomez takes over from Cardinal Roger Mahony, who was not replaced by the Vatican despite the costliest child abuse scandal in the US, which involved a pay-out of some $660 million dollars in 2007 to more than 500 victims of sexual abuse.

The Ryan report in Ireland described more than 380 cases of sexual abuse. Figures in Germany run into many hundreds, and in the US, there are more than 5,000 known cases.