Officials in the Vatican had been hoping 2010 would be the year they finally closed the chapter on the Catholic Church's abuse scandals.
Years of damaging revelations – starting in Canada, Australia, Britain and America before moving on to Ireland – irreparably damaged the Church's standing among devotees and non-believers alike. So when Pope Benedict XVI hosted Ireland's bishops in Rome in early February to give them a very public dressing down for the abuses that were ignored under their watch, he might have been forgiven for thinking the worst was over.
Instead, new paedophilia scandals broke out across Europe within days, one involving a choir that was run for three decades by the Pope's brother. Now 2010 will most likely be remembered as the year that Catholicism's clerical abuse scandal went truly global. In the past six weeks, new claims of abuse have emerged across the Catholic world like a rash. Each time a victim has come forward, it has given others the strength to do the same after years of painful silence.
The European scandal began last month in Germany with revelations that hundreds of children may have been abused at Jesuit schools in the 1970s and 1980s. It has since spread to the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland and, as of yesterday, Italy.
Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, the Catholic Church is battling embarrassing present-day abuse scandals in Mexico and Brazil, where this week an 82-year-old priest was suspended after he was allegedly filmed having sex with an altar boy.
Elke Huemmeler, a social worker who has been investigating child abuse allegations in Pope Benedict's former diocese of Munich, yesterday described the accusations coming into her office as "like a tsunami". In the pontiff's old stomping ground alone, she said, officials have uncovered 120 cases on record, most of them historical claims emanating out of the Ettal monastery boarding school run by Benedictine monks.
The abuse scandal is also moving geographically closer to Rome, hopping over the Alps to Austria and the world-famous Vienna Boys Choir – and now Italy. Yesterday, Karl Golser, bishop of the northern Italian diocese of Bolzano, made a public apology outlining his "sincere regret" as he launched a website for victims in his diocese to report their abusers.
For the thousands of Catholics across the globe who have been raped and abused by church figures, there is one word more than any other that they will want to hear from the Pope today. But even if Benedict does offer an unqualified, personal "sorry" – and there is no guarantee of that – it will take more than a pastoral letter to repair the damage that has been wrought by decades of systemic abuse and cover-ups within the Catholic Church.
In each country where historical abuse allegations have surfaced, the pattern is almost always the same – over the decades known paedophiles have been allowed to continue working within the Church, often with children. But it is not just the horrendous abuse that has caused such outrage, it is the perception that the Catholic Church is more interested in saving its own skin than rooting out evil and comforting victims. Rarely have the secular authorities been alerted to criminal activity.
What makes the latest allegations so potentially damaging is that much of the criticism about the Church's response to paedophilia goes right to the top – to the Pope himself.
Before he was appointed pontiff five years ago, the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger oversaw the Vatican body charged with investigating abuse by clergy. In 2001, he issued a now controversial order insisting that even the worst cases should first be investigated within the Church, something that Germany's Justice Minister said recently had helped to create a "wall of silence" for secular investigators.
There are also questions about whether Ratzinger – when he was bishop of Munich in the early 1980s – was aware of a known paedophile priest who was returned to pastoral duties after a short spell of therapy. The priest, who cannot be named for legal reasons, went on to abuse more children and was only convicted in 1986, four years after Ratzinger had moved to Rome. A German support group for abuse survivors, We Are Church, says it now wants the Pope to detail exactly what he knew about paedophile priests, and what action he took if and when he uncovered their crimes.
The Vatican, however, is determined not to let its leader (who is, after all, supposed to be "infallible") become personally dragged into the scandals. The Vatican Secretary of State has suggested that a secularist conspiracy in the Western media is using abuse scandals to undermine the Pope. But until the wall of silence is broken, questions will remain about the conduct inside St Peter's.Reuse content