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Pope tries to stem tide of sex abuse allegations

Catholics hope that publication of pastoral letter will help to ease crisis

Pope Benedict XVI will today make a desperate attempt to draw a line under the Catholic Church's sex-abuse scandal with the publication of a long-awaited pastoral letter demanding that urgent steps be taken to bring the crisis to an end.

Although addressed to the bishops of Ireland, it could just as easily be addressed to his entire flock after reports of shocking abuse have piled up from Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Italy and even in the Pope's own former diocese in Germany in recent weeks.

Senior Vatican figures have told Italian newspapers that they are desperate for the pastoral letter to mark a turning-point in the scandal, which some fear could damage the Church's standing beyond repair.

Pope Benedict's successor as Archbishop of Munich, Reinhard Marx, said the letter would "speak for everyone. It is not so individual, for specific groups or countries. That word will also be important for us".

The Italian daily Corriere della Sera quoted Vatican officials as saying the letter, to be read at Sunday Mass, "will contain not only religious considerations" but also "precise practical indications" on how the officials will "detect and cure this sore, removing it from the Church". Pope Benedict has said: "My hope is that it will help in the process of repentance, healing and renewal." Cardinal Brady, head of the Irish bishops, said this week that he was looking forward to it as an "important source" for a "new beginning and renewal in the Catholic Church of Ireland".

The letter had been prompted by a government-backed report that found that Irish church authorities covered up horrifying child-abuse by priests from 1975 to 2004. But scandal has since exploded across Europe.

Now the personal reputation of the pontiff has come under threat, with some senior church figures demanding an apology and accusing him of involvement in a lengthy cover-up.

Some theologians and senior church figures want a personal apology from the head of the Catholic Church. As a cardinal in 2001, he had declared that complaints against paedophile priests were covered by "pontifical secret", and should be handled by bishops in strict confidence, despite admitting that "very grave sins" had been committed.

Lawyers acting for abuse victims claim this was designed to prevent the allegations from becoming public knowledge or being investigated by the authorities.

The leading Swiss dissident theologian Hans Küng unleashed a fierce attack on the Pope this week, demanding that the pontiff "acknowledge his share of responsibility, instead of whining about a campaign against his person". Writing in the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica, the Rev Küng, who once taught alongside the Pope, added: "No other person in the Church has had to deal with so many cases of abuse crossing his desk ... Honesty demands that Joseph Ratzinger himself, the man who for decades has been principally responsible for the worldwide cover-up, at last pronounce his own mea culpa."

The Vatican has tried to defend the pontiff. The Pope was the Archbishop of Munich and Freising when paedophile priest Father Peter Hullermann was transferred there. The diocese has said the then Archbishop did not know that the priest continued to work in Bavarian congregations.

Far-reaching crisis: Allegations against the Church

1. US American church has paid out more than $2bn in law suits after hundreds were abused, particularly in and around Boston.

2. MEXICO Vatican recently finished investigation into Legionaries of Christ founder Marcial Maciel who secretly fathered a child and molested seminarians.

3. BRAZIL Priest and two monsignors suspended from church duties after priest allegedly filmed having sex with altar boy.

4. IRELAND Two major reports have uncovered systemic abuse of more than 15,000 children and large church-led cover-up. Current primate Cardinal Sean O'Brady admits to overseeing vows of silence for two abuse victims.

5. UK (ENGLAND & WALES) Numerous abuse revelations surfaced in early 2000s, hundreds thought to have been sexually abused. Known paedophile priests such as Michael Hill were moved from diocese to diocese where they continued to abuse.

6. NETHERLANDS Investigation underway into 200 abuse allegations from the 1950s to the 1970s.

7. GERMANY Multiple historical abuse allegations involving more than 300 children. Claims investigated in 18 of Germany's 27 dioceses including in a choir once run by Georg Ratzinger, the Pope's older brother.

8. AUSTRIA 16 people have reported 27 instances of historical abuse and the head of prestigious Salzburg monastery resigned over abusing a boy 40 years ago.

9. SWITZERLAND Commission currently investigating more than 60 abuse allegations spanning the last 15 years.

10. ITALY Abuse allegations have emerged in northern diocese of Bolzano.