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Vatican PR force frazzled after 'difficult and frustrating week'

Media barrage puts Holy See on offensive

Headshot of Eric Reguly

ROME -- The nightmare day for the Vatican press office came last Thursday, when a report alleged that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would become Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, declined to defrock a priest who had been one of the American church's most aggressive and perverted pedophiles - he went after deaf boys.

Published in The New York Times, the report left Father Ciro Benedettini, the Vatican's amiable deputy press secretary, and chief spokesman Father Frederico Lombardi frazzled. "It's been a difficult and frustrating week," Father Benedettini said from his cluttered office within metres of St. Peter's Square and the papal apartments that overlook it.

The report, coming only days after the Pope's apology to the victims of abuse in Ireland, triggered a genuine credibility crisis within the Catholic Church and left the Vatican press office struggling to salvage the Pope's reputation. Father Benedettini, 64, can't remember having been so busy. To prove the point, he clicked onto the electronic service used by the Vatican to monitor Vatican- and Pope-related stories. There were more than 2,200 new stories yesterday morning alone. Most, probably, were about the scandals.

What has surprised the two priests is not so much the sheer volume of the stories, but the allegations that Pope Benedict XVI was as much a part of the problem as the solution. His critics insist he did too little too late to punish predator priests and in some cases did nothing at all, even though he must have been aware of the crimes.

Since then, the Vatican has recovered somewhat from the shell shock and has gone on the offensive. While not denying that pedophilia was rampant in some dioceses, or that the church's moral stature has suffered, its goal is to show that the Pope took the abuse seriously when he was a Cardinal and took aggressive action to punish the guilty. "The church is the one institution in the world that is doing the most against pedophilia," Father Benedettini said. "We are confident we will make ourselves understood."

The Times article said that Rev. Lawrence Murphy, a teacher at a school for deaf children in Wisconsin, was suspected of molesting up to 200 boys between 1954 and 1974. According to the newspaper, the Murphy case was forwarded to the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Inquisition) in 1996. At the time, the office, which decides on canonical trials, was led by Cardinal Ratzinger. The office ultimately decided not to put Father Murphy on trail, because by then he was old, frail, living in seclusion and no allegations of abuse had been made against him for 20 years. He died in 1998, still a priest.

It won't be easy for the Vatican to repair the Pope's image, partly because there are different interpretations of the actions he took when confronted with allegations of abuse. Victims say Cardinal Ratzinger, as head of the Congregation, made changes that allowed bishops to cover up abuse cases. His 2001 letter to all the church's bishops, called De Delictis Gravioribus (Latin for "On More Serious Crimes"), is often cited by critics as evidence - the "smoking gun" - that the future Pope conspired to keep sexual abuse cases secret, which meant they would not be reported to the police or civil authorities such as child-protection agencies.

The letter said that the gravest crimes, one of which is the sexual abuse of a child, must be referred to the Congregation, where they are "subject to the pontifical secret." This section of the letter allowed cover-ups, abuse victims have said.

But the Vatican says that the "pontifical secret" section refers only to the church's internal disciplinary procedures and in no way prevented cases from being referred to police.

Writing in the National Catholic Reporter, an independent U.S. newspaper, reporter John Allen, author of a biography of Cardinal Ratzinger, said the 2001 letter, "far from being part of the problem, at the time ... was widely hailed as a watershed moment towards a solution. It marked recognition in Rome, really for the first time, of how serious the problem of sex abuse is, and it committed the Vatican to getting directly involved."

Mr. Allen notes that Cardinal Ratzinger, beginning that year, had to review the case of every priest accused of sexual abuse. At that time, he began to talk about the "filth" in the church. The Vatican press office is trying to use the Cardinal's 2001 letter to take the offensive in the public relations war. "As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he brought a clear and decisive attitude towards dealing with the terrible cases," Father Lombardi said.

Sexual abuse cases have fallen off sharply, Father Lombardi said, noting that most of those cited in the media are decades old. The most recent clergy sexual abuse audit by U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops showed that allegations of abuse fell by about one third from 2008 to 2009 while diocesan settlements to victims dropped by 83 per cent. According to the report, 513 victims came forward with credible allegations in U.S. dioceses in 2009, the vast majority of which were related to incidents alleged to have happened decades ago.

Michael Kirby of Orleans, Ont., who is a former Roman Catholic monk, has the opposite view of Cardinal Ratzinger's letter. In an e-mail, he said the "pontifical secret" reference "amounts to a reaffirmation of the 'gag order' statutes. ...[The Vatican] must stop equivocating and develop a new set of statues that more aggressively deal with these violations, including, first and foremost, recognition that sexual violations, whether in the context of the confessional or otherwise, are criminal offences under civil law and that the statutes of the church are not above the rule of law."

Supporters of Pope Benedict point out that when he was a Cardinal he launched a full inquiry into the behaviour of a Viennese Cardinal, Hans Hermann Groer, even though Pope John Paul was not pushing for one. The Austrian church was rocked by allegations in 1995 that the Cardinal had molested youths in a monastery in the 1970s. Three years later, on Vatican orders, he gave up all religious duties. He sought exile in Germany and died in 2003.

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