Catholicism in crisis

Vatican goes into battle for Benedict as sexual abuse crisis deepens

Spokesman says Pope knew nothing about reassigning paedophile priest

The Vatican yesterday fought a desperate battle to defend Pope Benedict from the latest child abuse scandal after reports linked him directly to a decision to allow a paedophile priest to take up a pastoral role in his former diocese.

Officials launched their second strident defence of the Pope in two days over separate episodes in Germany and the US as the tide of allegations moved closer to the pontiff himself. Senior Italian politicians also stepped in to defend the Pope over claims that he had failed to act strongly enough against child abuse by the clergy before he took on leadership of the church.

In the latest controversy, The New York Times reported that Benedict, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was kept closely informed of the case of Father Peter Hullerman, who was suspended from his duties in the northern German town of Essen in 1979 after several parents accused him of child sex attacks.

In January 1980, Cardinal Ratzinger, then archbishop of Munich, led a meeting approving Father Hullerman's transfer as a priest to the city, according to the newspaper. Just days later, the future pontiff was sent a memo informing him that the priest would take up duties in Munich within days of beginning psychiatric treatment even though he was described in the letter as a potential "danger", it said.

Until now, the diocese has said Cardinal Ratzinger knew about the transfer but not about the priest's continued work with youths in Bavaria. His then deputy, Monsignor Gerhard Gruber, has largely taken responsibility for the Munich episode.

The Pope's official spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, insisted yesterday: "The article does not contain any new information. Pope Benedict had no knowledge of the decision to reassign the priest to pastoral activities."

A day earlier the Vatican was forced to deny that the Pope had failed to act robustly after his Vatican office was contacted by US bishops over complaints that a priest, Father Lawrence Murphy, had molested as many as 200 deaf boys in Wisconsin.

The Vatican responded to the claims in L'Osservatore Romano newspaper saying that the US press reports were part of an "ignoble attempt to attack at any cost Benedict XVI and his closest collaborators". Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishops' conference, also blasted what it called a "frenetic desire to tarnish" the Pope.

In Pope Benedict's native Germany, an online editorial by Der Spiegel newspaper called on the pontiff to quit. "In 1996, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which he then led, decided not to punish the paedophile priest Father Lawrence Murphy. With his authority eroded, why does he even remain in office?" it said.

Under Church regulations it is possible for a pope to step down without asking for permission. But it is virtually unheard of – the last papal resignation, that of Pope Celestine V, came 700 years ago. The Vatican dismissed any suggestion that Benedict would resign.

In Britain, the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, said that as pope, Benedict had introduced changes into Church law to protect children. And, with Catholic votes in mind ahead of this weekend's regional elections, senior Italian politicians stepped in yesterday to defend Benedict.

The Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said in a statement: "It's an attempt at muck-raking at all costs that's obscuring the truth and that forgets the courage with which he has confronted this dramatic and delicate problem."

However, the Corriere della Sera newspaper, in an editorial, warned: "The worst choice for [the Church] would be to scream about international conspiracies by secular society."

But there was a growing consensus among Italian commentators yesterday that the daily tide of allegations meant it was not yet possible to say how serious the final damage would be to the Church and the Pope.

"The Pope is at a crossroads," said Marco Politi, a papal biographer and longtime Vatican watcher. He said the Pope had to decide whether to tough it out – or opt for radical new openness in the Vatican's musty corridors.

It has also emerged that Church inquiries in the northern Italian cities of Bolzano and Verona could expose new cases of paedophile clergy in Italy, which has more than 50,000 priests.

Meanwhile, a conservative religious order favoured by Pope John Paul II finally apologised to the victims of sexual abuse by its founder. Leaders of the Legionaries of Christ saidyesterday that at first they couldn't believe the accusations against the late Mexican prelate Marcial Maciel.

Vatican crisis: Key players in scandal

*Lawrence Murphy

Between 1950 and 1974, Murphy is thought to have abused 200 deaf boys in Wisconsin. The Vatican body tasked with investigating abuse cases – headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger until he became pope – backtracked on plans for a secret disiplinary hearing for the priest after a personal appeal from Murphy.

*Peter Hullerman

Jailed for 18 months for abusing children. He was allowed to continue working in the future Pope's diocese in 1980. The Vatican has denied that Benedict knew of a decision to reassign him to youth work in Bavaria

*Bernard Law

The Cardinal was forced to quit in 2002 after being accused of covering up hundreds of abuse cases in his Boston archdiocese.

*Marcial Maciel

Founder of the Legion of Christ, died in 2008. A sexual molester who fathered at least one child with his victims. He had the ear of the late Pope John Paul II despite the abuse allegations.

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