VATICAN CITY — The Vatican is facing one of its gravest crises of modern times as sex abuse scandals move ever closer to Pope Benedict XVI — threatening not only his own legacy but also that of his revered predecessor.
Benedict took a much harder stance on sex abuse than John Paul II when he assumed the papacy five years ago, disciplining a senior cleric championed by the Polish pontiff and defrocking others under a new policy of zero tolerance.
But the impression remains of a woefully slow-footed church and of a pope who bears responsibility for allowing pedophile priests to keep their parishes.
In an editorial on Friday, the National Catholic Reporter in the United States called on Benedict to answer questions about his role "in the mismanagement" of sex abuse cases, not only in the current crisis but during his tenure in the 1980s as archbishop of Munich and then as head of the Vatican's doctrinal and disciplinary office.
It all comes down to the question of what the pope knew and when. The answer will almost certainly determine the fate of Benedict's papacy.
Scandal in France
As he approaches Holy Week, the most solemn period on the Christian calendar, victims groups and other critics are demanding Benedict accept personal responsibility. A few say he should resign.
Some fear the crisis will alienate Catholics from the church, with a survey in Benedict's native Germany already showing disaffection among Catholics while there is deep anger in once very Catholic Ireland.
Another scandal broke Friday in France, where a priest in a town southeast of Paris was hit with sexual assault and child pornography charges after a 22-year-old former choirboy accused him of abuse.
The French probe was opened after the man told authorities that he had been assaulted by the priest as an adult, the prosecutor of Troyes, Alex Perrin, said Friday.
Police searched the priest's home and found two or three pornographic photos of a child parishioner in Marcilly-le-Hayer, the prosecutor said by telephone.
"This news is upsetting to everyone," the bishop of Troyes, Marc Stenger, wrote in a statement published in Friday in the local paper, L'Est- Eclair. But, he said, "this must not be the hour of judgment and condemnation. We must wait to know the truth."
The bishop asked the priest to be moved elsewhere during the probe, according to the prosecutor, who said the investigation could take several months.
Perrin said the priest was detained Wednesday for questioning. Preliminary charges of "sexual assault" and "illegal possession of images characteristic of child pornography," were issued Friday, opening the way for a formal investigation. The priest was freed after questioning, but ordered to receive treatment and forbidden any contact with minors, Perrin said.
Vatican: Smear campaign
As the climate worsens, the Vatican is showing increasing impatience and even anger, denouncing what it says is a campaign to smear the pope.
L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, said this week there was a "clear and despicable intention" to strike at Benedict "at any cost."
But as attention focuses on Benedict, a perhaps thornier question looms over how much John Paul II, beloved worldwide for his inspirational charisma and courageous stand against communism, knew about sex abuse cases and whether he was too tolerant of pedophile priests.
John Paul presided over the church when the sex abuse scandal exploded in the United States in 2002 and the Vatican was swamped with complaints and lawsuits under his leadership. Yet during most of his 26-year papacy, individual dioceses and not the Vatican took sole responsibility for investigating misbehavior.
Professor Nick Cafardi, a canon and civil lawyer and former chairman of the U.S. bishops lay review board that monitored abuse, said Benedict was "very courageous" to reverse Vatican support for the Legionaires of Christ, a sex scandal-tainted organization staunchly defended by John Paul.
John Paul was already ailing from Parkinson's disease when the U.S. scandal erupted, a factor supporters say may have kept him from initially realizing its scope.
While Cardinal Bernard Law became the most high-profile church figure to fall, resigning as archbishop of Boston over the scandal, John Paul gave him a soft landing, appointing him as head of a Rome basilica and keeping him on various Vatican committees.
The world-traveling John Paul has been put on a fast track for sainthood by Benedict in response to popular demand. Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, the emeritus head of the Vatican's saint-making office, said this week that historians who studied the pope's life didn't find anything problematic in John Paul's handling of abuse scandals.
"According to them there was nothing that was a true obstacle to his cause of beatification. They are very strict," Saraiva Martins said.
For Benedict, a quiet intellectual who will be 83 next month, the scandal must be trying.
Until recently, Benedict had received high marks for his handling of sex abuse — seen as a bright spot amid turmoil over his remarks linking Islam to violence and his rehabilitation of an ultraconservative bishop who denies the Holocaust.
Shortly before his election as pope in 2005 he had denounced "filth" in the church — widely viewed as a reference to clerics who abused children. He proclaimed a policy of zero tolerance for offenders and met and prayed with victims while traveling in the United States and Australia.
Benedict won praise for moving against the Legionaries of Christ, the conservative order once hailed by John Paul that fell into scandal after it revealed that its founder had fathered a child and had molested seminarians.
The Vatican began investigating allegations against the Rev. Marcial Maciel of Mexico in the 1950s, but it wasn't until 2006, a year into Benedict's pontificate, that the Vatican instructed Maciel to lead a "reserved life of prayer and penance" in response to the abuse allegations — effectively removing him from power.
But reaction changed as the abuse scandal moved across Europe and into Benedict's native Germany in recent months, touching his older brother and getting close to the pontiff himself with a case dating to his own tenure as archbishop of Munich.
The former vicar general of the Munich archdiocese has absolved the pope of responsibility in the case of the Rev. Peter Hullermann, accused of abusing boys.
While then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was involved in a 1980 decision to transfer Hullermann to Munich for therapy, Ratzinger's then-deputy took responsibility for a subsequent decision to let the priest return to pastoral duties. Hullermann was convicted of sexual abuse in 1986.
However, the New York Times reported Friday that Ratzinger was copied in on a memo stating Hullermann would be returned to pastoral work within days of beginning psychiatric treatment. The archdiocese insisted Ratzinger was unaware of the decision and that any other version was "mere speculation."
In another case, documents show the Vatican office responsible for disciplining priests, while headed by Ratzinger, halted a church trial of a Milwaukee priest accused of molesting some 200 deaf boys from 1950-1975.
Two Wisconsin bishops had urged the Vatican to approve the proceeding against the Rev. Lawrence Murphy, arguing that even though it was years after the alleged abuse, the deaf community in Milwaukee was demanding justice. The trial was approved in 1997, only to be halted after an appeal by the priest to Ratzinger. Murphy died in 1998.
Murphy's eventual punishment was a restriction on celebrating Mass and on visiting the deaf community.
Such light disciplinary measures remain the norm in the majority of sex abuse cases.
Of the 3,000 cases the Vatican has received since 2001, only 20 percent have gone to a full canonical trial, the Vatican's chief prosecutor Monsignor Charles Scicluna said. Disciplinary sanctions were imposed in 60 percent, such as priests being ordered to live a retired life of prayer and not celebrate Mass publicly; in only 10 percent were the accused priests defrocked.
The abuse crisis in the United States, which involved 4 percent of the American priesthood, showed a pattern of bishops covering for errant clerics, at times moving them from parish to parish. The latest documents point to Vatican complicity, although the Vatican denies there was any cover-up.
Papal resignationsDefenders of Benedict, such as British Archbishop Vincent Nichols, say that as cardinal he made important changes in church law to crack down on offenders and was not an "idle observer."
French bishops rallied around Benedict in a letter on Friday, saying while they deplored clerical sex abuse, the issue "is being used in a campaign to attack you personally."
Still, it is in Germany where Benedict's popularity has taken a real hit.
A poll in Stern magazine released this week shows only 39 percent of Germany's Catholics trust the pope, down from 62 percent in late January. Some 34 percent trust the Catholic church as an institution, down from 56 percent in January. The margin of error was 2.5 percentage points.
Rainer Kampling, a professor of Catholic theology at Berlin Free University, says the idea that the pope might resign — slipping polls not withstanding — is hardly realistic. "The pope is not a politician," he said.
Herbert Kohlmaier, chairman of an Austrian Catholic group that has criticized Benedict, also said a resignation shouldn't be expected. "They certainly won't let a symbolic figure like that go."
While church law allows for the resignation of a pope, there are few precedents over the church's two millennium history. The last was by 15th-century Pope Gregory XII, and that was not over scandal but rather a schism in the church.
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