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Vatican answers critics on abuse

Catholic World News - March 15, 2010

Pounded by stories in the European media about the sex-abuse scandal that is exploding across the continent, the Vatican released an unusual statement on Saturday, March 13, defending Church policies and refuting stories that had sought to link Pope Benedict XVI directly to the scandal.

At the same time, the chief Vatican prosecutor for sex-abuse cases gave a lengthy interview in the Italian daily Avvenire, giving the public its first inside look at how the Vatican handles sex-abuse complaints, and rejecting charges that the Vatican has tried to impose a lid of silence on the cases.

Father Federico Lombardi, the director of the Vatican press office, also addressed the allegations of secrecy in his Saturday statement. The norms governing canonical trials of sex-abuse cases "did not seek, and have not favored, any kind of cover-up," he said; "quite the contrary, they initiated intense activities to confront, judge, and adequately punish the crimes in the context of ecclesiastical legislation." He added that the current Pope, in his previous post as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (which handles abuse charges against priests), pursued the cases with "rigor and coherence." He called attention to the interview with Msgr. Charles Scicluna, the "promoter of justice" at the Congregation, who provided more details about the prosecution of abuse cases.

Father Lombardi went on to draw attention to a statement from the Munich archdiocese, making it clear that Pope Benedict was "completely unconnected" with a case in which a priest accused of pedophile had been assigned to parish work while then-Cardinal Ratzinger was archbishop in the German city. The papal spokesman took a slap at journalists who have churned out stories about the Munich case-- often containing erroneous information-- in an obvious effort to link the Pope to the pedophile priest. Father Lombardi said that "it is evident that over recent days some people have sought-- with considerable persistence, in Regensburg and Munich-- elements that could personally involve the Holy Father in questions of abuse." He concluded: "To any objective observer, it is clear that these efforts have failed."

Msgr. Scicluna, in his interview with Avvenire, also took direct aim at critics who have charged the Vatican with imposing secrecy on all abuse charges. He angrily denounced as "false and calumnious" the accusation that then-Cardinal Ratzinger tried to cover up abuse cases while he was at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Church investigations into abuse reports are indeed kept confidential, the Vatican prosecutor explained, in order "to protect the good name of all the people involved"-- both the abuse victims and the priests who may be unjustly accused. However the norms do not prevent victims from alerting civil law-enforcement officials. In countries such as the US, where reporting of child abuse is mandatory, the Church demands that bishops make those reports. In other countries, Church officials are asked to encourage the victims to contact prosecutors.

Msgr. Scicluna revealed that in 2003 and 2004 "a great wave of cases" reached his Congregation, most of them coming from the US, where the sex-abuse scandal had already exploded. During the past decade, he said, the office has handled about 3,000 cases.

Most of these 3,000 cases have not involved the sexual abuse of young children, the prosecutor said. "We can say that about 60% of the cases chiefly involved sexual attraction towards adolescents of the same sex, another 30% involved heterosexual relations, and the remaining 10% were cases of pedophilia in the true sense of the term."

Many cases have concluded with the dismissal of the guilty priest from the clerical state, the "promoter of justice" revealed. He said that many cases against older priests had been settled with a requirement that the priest remove himself from public ministry and spend his remaining days in prayer and penance. Such a requirement, he said, is tantamount to a guilty finding; "if a a person is obliged to a life of silence and prayer, then there must be a reason." (That conclusion would apparently apply to the case of the late Father Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ.) In Rome, Archbishop Salvatore Fisichella, the president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said that the Pope wants to implement a "zero tolerance" policy regarding sexual abuse of minors, similar to the policy adopted by the US bishops' conference in 2002. That policy, the archbishop said, is a "moral obligation."

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