Catholic abuse crisis: Church hits out at critics, archbishop speaks of 'shame'

The Catholic abuse crisis swirling around the Vatican has grown this week, with a cardinal complaining about press bias and an archbishop writing of the church's 'misplaced concern about the reputation of the church.'

L'Osservatore Romano/AP/File
Catholic abuse crisis: Pope Benedict XVI, left, meets Archbishop Robert Zollitsch in his private library at the Vatican, March 12. The archbishop wrote in an open letter on the Internet of his 'sadness and shame.'

Global controversy over the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests continued to mount on Friday, with the head of the church in Germany expressing "shame" over the way allegations of abuse have been handled. Many critics charge the church hierarchy failed to remove accused child molesters from the ministry.

Archbishop Robert Zollitsch of Germany wrote in an open letter on the Internet of his "sadness and shame" and of his "disappointment over the painful failure of the offenders, and that the victims weren't helped enough because of the misplaced concern about the reputation of the church. That is also a sad reality that we have to face up to."

In Germany, Ireland, Austria, the US and elsewhere, new allegations of abuse by priests over the past three decades have emerged this year along with charges that senior church officials shuffled priests around rather than defrocking them when cases of abuse emerged. Pope Benedict XVI has come in for criticism that he headed the chief church investigation authority that was extremely slow to take action against priests accused of sexual abuse, with a lengthy complex system that left accused abusers as serving priests for years.

In Germany, the case of the now deceased Father Peter Hullermann has stirred outrage. Mr. Hullermann admitted to molesting children in 1979, and was assigned to undergo psychological counseling before being assigned to work with children again under the authority of then Archbishop of Munich and Freising Joseph Ratzinger, who was elected as Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.

He went on to abuse more children and was convicted of sexually abusing minors by a German court in 1986. This week, German media reported that a new allegation of abuse has been made against Hullermann, dating to 1998 when he served as a priest in Garching.

Vatican officials have said that Pope Benedict did not know of the abuse charges against Hullermann at the time he was reassigned and that the famously hands-on manager left the matter to deputies. Nevertheless, many ordinary Catholics and critics of the church say the failure of the church leadership to permanently remove Hullermann and other priests from the ministry in the phase of credible allegations demonstrates a stunning failure of moral leadership.

Three particular cases have been highlighted by critics who allege that Ratzinger was at least culpable by negligence. That of Hullermann; that of Father Lawrence Murphy, who "criminally abused as many as 200 deaf children while working at a school in the Milwaukee Archdiocese from 1950 to 1974" in the words of Cardinal William J. Levada; and that of Father Marciel Maciel, a Mexican who founded the Legionaries of Christ and who was investigated for sexual abuse in 1998 and again in 2004 by the church, when Pope Benedict was in charge of such investigations.

In the later two examples, church critics say that Benedict's role from 1981 to 2005 as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican body that replaced the Inquisition and is its chief body for enforcing orthodoxy and discipline, should have had him firmly in the frame for defrocking these men. On Benedict's watch, an investigation against Murphy in 1996 was dropped on grounds of age and frailty (he passed away in 1998). Mr. Maciel was ordered to live a life of "prayer and penance" in 2006 and died two years later at age 87. Both Maciel and Murphy were buried with full church honors.

In another case that came to light in an Arizona Daily Star report on Thursday, deceased Tucson Bishop Manuel D. Moreno wrote to Benedict in 1997 asking for his help to "expedite" a church case against Rev. Michael Teta begun in 1990. Accused of soliciting sex from seminarians in the confessional, he was only defrocked 14 years later, in 2004.

Bishop Pat Buckley, a renegade Irish cleric operating independently of the church, said that Benedict operated as the right-hand man for his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. “John Paul II was a kind of ‘rock star’ pope who traveled the world but Ratzinger did all the official work,” said Buckley. “John Paul II took little or no interest in errant priests or even theology.”

Buckley says long before Cardinal Ratzinger was elected pontiff he was an éminence grise: “Ratzinger was the most powerful person in the Vatican once he assumed the office of heading the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.”

Church hits back

Responding to accusations that Benedict has done little to address the issue of sexual abuse by clergy, the Vatican has come out fighting, not only complaining of press smears but also saying that Benedict has done more than any prior pope to root out sexual abuse by priests.

Cardinal Levada, who replaced Benedict as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, lambasted a New York Times article on how the Murphy case was handled in an open letter on Wednesday. He wrote that in hindsight Father Murphy "deserved to be dismissed from the clerical state for his egregious criminal behavior" and said this was particularly true since "the case involved solicitation in confession – one of the graviora delicta [most grave crimes]." This means that Murphy's accusers alleged he had groomed them for sexual abuse while taking holy confession.

But he said the Times story was "deficient by any reasonable standards of fairness" because, in his view, it draws unreasonable connections between Murphy's crimes – which took place between the 1950s and 1970s – and Benedict. The Times wrote that Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland wrote to Benedict in 1996 asking for the Vatican's help in dealing with Murphy, wanting the priest to be defrocked. Levada said that the body run by Benedict approved a canonical trial against Murphy, but suspended it in 2006 when Murphy was in failing health.

"Only when it learned that Murphy was dying did the Congregation suggest to Weakland that the canonical trial be suspended, since it would involve a lengthy process of taking testimony," he wrote. "My interpretation would be that the Congregation realized that the complex canonical process would be useless if the priest were dying."

Vincent Twomey, a priest and former student of Benedict's s who still meets him annually to debate theology and philosophy, says the charges that Benedict failed in dealing with Hullermann are wrong.

“The pope’s been accused of mishandling the case in Germany in 1980. It’s innuendo,” he said. “If you look, [the offending priest Peter Hullerman] was transferred for therapy. What he [Ratzinger] knew of this was practically nothing. The decisions were made by the Vicar General – the thing wasn’t as clear cut as it seems.”

Legal action?

Lawyers from sexual abuse victims in the US have suggested they might try to call Benedict to testify in civil suits alleging church negligence. On Thursday a top Vatican lawyer told Rome's Corriere della Sera that Benedict will not be compelled to testify since as a head of state Benedict is immune from being called. The Pope is both head of the global Catholic church and its 1 billion and adherents and monarch of the Vatican.

The likelihood of Benedict stepping down as head of the church is slim. Even in his last, ailing years John Paul II refused to stand down from office as head of the church and monarch of the Vatican. But Benedict’s tenure as pope has been irrevocably damaged in the eyes of some Catholics.

The latest difficulty is that allegations of child abuse by priests have sprung up not only in Ireland but across the Catholic world – including in the pope’s native Germany, from a period when he held senior positions in the German church. Rumors are now spreading of similar cases in the Italian church which, if true, could be a devastating blow in the center of the Catholic world.

Pope Benedict’s visit to Britain, scheduled for September this year, is in his capacity as a head of state. Church critics have promised protests, including from secularists and irate Catholics.

“The fact is that he qualifies as a head of state for some reason. We’re opposed to it being a state visit. To laud somebody like this and pay for it from the taxpayers’ purse is scandalous,” says Terry Sanderson of Britain’s National Secular Society, a group campaigning for separation of church and state. “The prime minister is already talking about it as being a ‘joyous occasion’ – well, a lot of people are absolutely furious with it.”

Benedict's defenders say the current criticism is particularly unfair because, in their view, he's been committed to cleaning up church governance and protecting future generations of Catholic children from abuse. "We owe Pope Benedict a great debt of gratitude for introducing the procedures that have helped the Church to take action in the face of the scandal of priestly abuse of minors," Levada wrote. "

Former monk Richard Sipe, now married and a clinical psychologist disagrees. Author of the seminal study Sex, Priests, and Power: Anatomy of a Crisis, Sipe says that Ratzinger repeatedly refused to laicize (defrock) priests, let along hand them over to the authorities.

“In 1992 in Chicago there was the first national meeting of victims clergy sexual abuse. There were 300 people there and I said at that time: ’The problem we are experiencing now is the tip of the iceberg and if you follow this to its foundation it will lead to the highest corridors of the Vatican.’ I stand by that because it’s systemic,” he says.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.