Pope Benedict XVI is confronting the greatest crisis the Roman Catholic Church has faced since at least 2002, when a wave of scandals and lawsuits in the US hit the church. At that time, the Boston Globe uncovered the abuse of children by priests in the Archdiocese of Boston and provided evidence that church superiors had covered up their crimes.
Now, evidence of sexual abuse is once more rocking the church. But this time, it's global in scope, with fresh claims of abuse of boys and girls by priests in the US, Ireland, Holland, Italy, and in Pope Benedict's home country of Germany.
This week, the church in Germany announced it would set up a hotline for victims of sexual abuse under Bishop Stephan Ackermann. At a mass at St. Peter's on Sunday, Pope Benedict referred to faith helping Catholics not being "intimidated" by "petty gossip."
Some commentators see the current crisis as more than a global repeat of 2002, however. In a Friday editorial, the National Catholic Reporter called the new abuse scandals before Pope Benedict the "largest institutional crisis in centuries, possibly in church history." The Catholic Reporter wrote "the Holy Father needs to directly answer questions, in a credible forum, about his role – as archbishop of Munich (1977-82), as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1982-2005), and as pope (2005-present) – in the mismanagement of the clergy sex abuse crisis."
This time around, there are allegations that Pope Benedict, who was known as Cardinal Josef Ratzinger until being named pontiff, either covered up for or was indifferent to allegations of abuse by priests under his authority. Church spokesmen have said the current pope never knowingly reassigned priests accused of sexual abuse to work with children again or otherwise covered up allegations of crimes.
The following cases are under scrutiny for their potential direct connection to the pope.
St. John's school for the deaf, USA
At least 19 boys abused at St John’s School for the Deaf in Wisconsin were molested by the Rev. Lawrence Murphy from the 1950s until as late as 1974. Father Murphy, who died in 1998, avoided being defrocked by appealing to Cardinal Ratzinger. Ratzinger's deputy, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, accepted the petition on the basis of Murphy’s age and ill health. The two American bishops handling the case objected to this and had sought a criminal trial against Murphy. The diocese began mediation with victims in 2004, paying unspecified compensation.
This story, which originated in The New York Times last week, has been at the center of some confusion, with many news outlets saying 200 boys complained of abuse. Vincent Twomey, a Catholic theologian and friend of Pope Benedict, claims this figure is incorrect.
“It was a school of 200 students,” said Dr. Twomey in a Monitor interview. “Twenty-nine accusations were made and 19 he admitted. That’s 19 too many boys abused, but the story was misreported.”
The Rev. Peter Hullermann, Germany
Three families in the German city of Essen alleged that the Rev. Peter Hullermann sexually abused their children. In 1980, Father Hullermann was transferred to the Munich Archdiocese for psychotherapy and then returned to work with youths.
Hullermann was convicted of sexual abuse in 1986, but returned to work in congregations until he was suspended on March 16 this year, after allegations against him and questions about what Pope Benedict had known about him were raised in the press.
A spokesman for the diocese said no one was informed by then-Archbishop Ratzinger, in charge of the Munich Archdiocese, that Hullermann was an alleged sex offender.
The church has responded that Ratzinger did not know Hullerman had returned to parish work. “The then-archbishop had no knowledge of the decision to reassign [Hullerman] to pastoral activities in a parish," the Vatican said in a statement on Friday, March 26.
The Rev. Marciel Maciel, Spain and Italy
Mexican priest Marcial Maciel, a prelate (an office roughly equivalent to bishop) who founded the conservative Legionaries of Christ order in 1941, was accused of molesting seminarians on numerous occasions.
The church hierarchy began investigating allegations against Father Maciel in the 1950s, and again in 1998, after nine former seminarians said he abused them when they were youths in Spain and Italy.
Ratzinger began a third investigation in 2004, a year before he was elected pope. In 2006, after becoming pope, the Vatican ordered Maciel to lead a "reserved life of prayer and penance."
Maciel died in 2008 at age 87. His order issued an apology to victims on March 26 this year. The conclusions of the church’s final investigation are expected to be published this year.