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March 17, 2010

Column #1,490a

(first of two parts)

Catholic Priest Scandal Hits Europe

By Mike McManus

            The scandal of sexually-abusing Catholic priests which has roiled America for two decades has finally hit Europe in splashy headlines, with hundreds of victims coming forward – even implicating Pope Benedict XVI.

            In 1980 when he was Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger of Munich, the future Pope transferred Fr. Peter Hullermann, accused of molesting children in the Diocese of Essen, to Munich. In 1986 the priest was convicted of sexually abusing boys, fined 4,000 marks (about $1,000), and put on probation for five years.

            Despite that history, Hullermann was given another parish, where he continued to work with altar boys and served until this week when he was removed from ministry. A deputy to Ratzinger took responsibility for allowing the priest to return to pastoral duties, but the most important job of a bishop is assigning priests. Ratzinger had to be aware of Hullermann’s appointment .

            The Pope was also embarrassed by revelations that his older brother, Father Georg Ratzinger, physically abused choirboys.  He acknowledged recently that “I slapped (the boys) in the face on a number of occasions.” He claimed he stopped the practice in 1980 when corporal punishment was banned by the state. However, a member of the choir from 1988-1992 recalled, “I saw him get so angry he threw a chair into our group of singers.”  Once his rage was so great, “that even his false teeth fell out.” Another said he hit them with a whip.

            More important, Pope John Paul II promoted Cardinal Ratzinger to head the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly known as The Inquisition. Every accusation of child rape or abuse in the world landed on his desk.

            In May, 2001 he wrote a confidential letter to all bishops reminding them of the extreme gravity of a certain crime. Rape and abuse of children?  No, the REPORTING of such offenses to police or others outside the church. He wrote that charges were to be investigated “in the most secretive way…restrained by a perpetual silence…and everyone…is to observe the strictest secret…under the penalty of excommunication.”

            As a Der Spiegel reporter put it, “Nobody has been excommunicated for the rape and torture of children, but exposing the offense could get you into serious trouble.”

            A Dallas Morning News investigation found credible evidence that 75 percent of sitting U.S .bishops had covered up the actions of priest perpetrators.  Two dozen bishops were accused of being personally involved in abusing children. None were fired though some retired early.

            The priest scandal in Ireland grew to such proportions, with press accounts of suicides by men who were molested as boys - that two governmental commissions were appointed to investigate.  In a blockbuster report last May, every Irish Catholic orphanage was found to have priests who ravished children. It resulted in victims being awarded 100 million Euros.

            The Vatican’s official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, published a front-page editorial stressing, “For the love of truth, the number of incidents involving clergy is small…It should be noted that abuse of children is more widespread in non-religious people and married couples.” Also, the media was blamed for its coverage of sex scandals.

            SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, retorted: “This is a baseless, childish and irrelevant claim. It is baseless because there is little hard data on the extent of abuse in various institutions and because 98 percent of clergy sex crimes and cover-up across the globe remains hidden.

            “It is childish because trying to blame others for one’s own wrong doing is what children do. It is irrelevant because the real issue is the cover-up and evidence suggests that no institution conceals more child sex crimes than the Catholic hierarchy.”

            In America there have been 5,000 law suits against local dioceses for harm caused by priests, resulting in more than $2 billion in payments. Yet this high cost has not prompted the Catholic hierarchy to re-think its strategy.  Bishops blame a “few bad apples” rather than acknowledge the need to reform internal rules and external laws to protect children.

            The most important internal reform is to make celibacy optional so that healthy married men are attracted to the priesthood.  No strategy could do more to breathe fresh air through the Catholic Church, which already accepts married priests if they are “Eastern Rite” or converted Episcopalians or Lutherans.  Thousands of men who reluctantly left the priesthood to marry  would return to serve, and seminaries would flourish.

            Will Pope Benedict turn this crisis into an opportunity for change?  Insiders think not, but I am hopeful.

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