March 17, 2010
(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
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
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.