Pope takes hardline on priests

2010-03-19 18:07

Vatican City – After decades of strict secrecy over paedophile priests, Pope Benedict XVI deserves credit for forcing the Roman Catholic Church to finally tackle the problem head-on, analysts say.

"Over the course of the last 15 years, there has been a sort of Copernican revolution within the church," said Marco Politi, Vatican analyst at the leftist Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano.

"For centuries, the church hid the facts because its main goal was to defend the institution's prestige. Today, the pope himself encourages speaking out," Politi told AFP.

The church has been engulfed in recent weeks by a snowballing scandal which began in November with revelations of widespread sexual abuse of children by Irish priests and teachers and systematic cover-ups by the Catholic hierarchy.

The pope was due to a sign a pastoral letter to Ireland's Roman Catholics about the scandal on Friday, and its contents should be made public on Saturday.

Predator priest scandals

Vatican watcher, John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, noted that the predator priest scandals began to emerge towards the end of the reign of John Paul II, Benedict's predecessor who died in 2005.

"But Benedict is the crisis pope: he is the first to impose discipline," Allen said.

"He can be criticised for the way he governs the church, but when it comes to sexual abuse, he took the matter forcefully into his own hands," he added.

The church in the pope's native Germany has also been accused of pursuing a hush-hush approach to the scourge, and Benedict himself was caught up in the maelstrom of scandals that has swept two-thirds of the country's 27 dioceses since revelations first emerged in late January.

As archbishop of Munich in 1980, he approved the transfer of a suspected paedophile priest to his diocese to undergo therapy; the priest went on to abuse and was eventually convicted and jailed.

Contact with youth

Two decades later, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog – he initiated a decree issued by Pope John Paul II in 2001 ordering bishops to report abuse cases to the Vatican and remove abusers from contact with youth.

Further along the road to transparency, as pontiff, Benedict has continually spoken out and apologised for the "heinous crime", meeting victims in the US and in Australia.

He has met twice with the top leadership of the Irish Catholic Church, rebuking them over the scandal and urging them to restore the church's "spiritual and moral credibility".

"The letter to the Irish is the first official document by a pope on the phenomenon of paedophilia in contemporary society," Politi said.

But he warned: "The credibility of the document cannot be ensured, unless there is an opening of inquiries within the dioceses to discover if there are other victims that have not been heard."

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