VATICAN CITY — A leading archbishop and Vatican officials defended the pope on Friday, amid increasing allegations that top members of the church hierarchy protected pedophile priests at the expense of those they abused.
While acknowledging that past child abuse and its concealment by the church was "deeply shocking and totally unacceptable," the Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols defended Pope Benedict XVI in an article in London's Times newspaper.
"He is not an idle observer. His actions speak as well as his words," wrote Nichols, who is head of the Catholic church in England and Wales.
When the pope was an archbishop he led important changes in church law, such as the extension of child abuse offenses to include the sexual abuse of all under 18; the case by case waiving of the statute of limitations; and the establishment of a fast-track dismissal for offenders, Nichols pointed out in his article.
The archbishop wrote that less than 0.4 percent of priests in England and Wales had been accused of abuse and since 2001 all allegations of sexual abuse had been reported to the police or social services.
"As far as I know, no other organization in this country does this," the Archbishop wrote. "It is not a cover-up; it is clear and total disclosure. The purpose of doing so is not to defend the Church."
"It is to make plain that in the Catholic Church in England and Wales there is no hiding place for those who seek to harm children," he added.
On Thursday, an editorial in a Vatican newspaper rejected claims that the pope failed to act against a Wisconsin priest accused of abusing up to 200 deaf boys two decades ago and denied there was a "cover-up."
"The prevalent tendency in the media is to ignore the facts and stretch interpretations with the aim of spreading the picture of the Catholic Church as the only one responsible for sexual abuse, something which does not correspond to reality," the editorial went on to say.
In 1996, leading U.S. clergy had complained about the priest, Father Lawrence Murphy, to a Vatican office led by the future pope, but received no response.
Perilously close to pope
A scandal of alleged cover-ups of sexual abuse of children by priests has been convulsing the Roman Catholic Church in Europe with even more intensity than a similar one which hit the United States eight years ago.
But this time it has come perilously close to the pope himself as victims groups have said they want to know how he handled cases before his election in 2005.
The pope had known of a cover-up "for many years," claimed one victim, speaking to BBC News. The pontiff should confess about what he knew, Arthur Budzinski, 61, said.
"It goes all the way up to him — he was in charge of these types of cases," he said, according to the BBC.
There have been also allegations of a cover-up of sexual abuse in Munich, in his native Germany, when he was the city's archbishop from 1977 to 1981. Victims groups have called for information on his decisions when he headed the Vatican doctrinal department from 1981 to 2005.
The Vatican was responding to the release of documents, first reported by The New York Times, that showed how the pope's former office told a Wisconsin bishop to shut down the church trial against Rev. Murphy, who was accused of molesting some 200 deaf boys from 1950 to 1975.Papal resignations
Murphy died in 1998, two years after Ratzinger first learned of the accusations, and more than 20 years after they came to the attention of the Milwaukee diocese.
The Munich archdiocese has said that Ratzinger was also involved in a 1980 decision to allow a priest who had been accused of abusing boys, the Rev. Peter Hullermann, to be transferred there for therapy .
However, Ratzinger's then-deputy, Gerhard Gruber, said earlier this month he took full responsibility for a subsequent decision to allow the priest to return to pastoral duties. Hullermann was convicted in 1986 of sexual abuse during a later posting.
The New York Times reported Friday that that the future pope was copied in on a memo saying that the priest would quickly be returned to pastoral work, and that church officials could not rule out that Ratzinger read it.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.