Video: Vatican scandal heats up during Holy Week

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    >> "today."

    >>> we turn to the latest growing crisis for the catholic church and the intensifying heat on the pope and senior ranks. another crisis over allegations of child abuse , this comes during holy week, of course, observed by a billion catholics around the planet. there is growing pressure on the pope to address this once and for all. our own ann thompson is in rome tonight. ann , good evening.

    >> reporter: good evening, brian. once again tonight pope benedict chose not to address the widening crisis, instead focusing on his predecessor, john paul ii . at an elaborate mass inside st. peter's basilica, the church marked the fifth anniversary of pope john paul ii 's death. scenes of mourners jamming vatican city to pay respects to the charismatic leader now a memory. john paul 's legacy and pope benedict 's papacy clouded by sexual abuse under their watch.

    >> there is always the feeling it is going to blow over. oh, it is not as big as people think it is. it is big. and it's not going blow over.

    >> reporter: across europe a drum beet of accusations, ireland, switzerland, the netherlands. in germany 300 claims of abuse. from 62% in january before the scandal broke to 39% today the poll shows trust in the pope. around the world church leaders cape to the defense of the pope. in new york the archbishop compared him to jesus.

    >> no one has been more vigorous of cleansing the church of the sickening sin and crime than the man we call pope benedict xvi .

    >> reporter: the pope's palm sunday sermon, a boston survivor gary bergeron.

    >> intimidation is what we felt decades ago when we started coming forward . petty gossip is what our claims were called.

    >> reporter: some want european bishops to institute a zero tolerance policy and learn from the american crisis.

    >> some of them are going to have to take a bullet for the church. some are going to have to stand up and say i did this. i made a mistake. i take responsibility and i resign. that is what people look for in a leader.

    >> reporter: in ireland already two bishops have stepped down and three more have offered to resign. offers that have yet to be accepted by pope benedict . brian?

    >> ann thompson in rome for us tonight, ann , thanks for that.

NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 3/30/2010 11:41:16 AM ET 2010-03-30T15:41:16

Editors note: In a headline that appeared within this report earlier on March 30, a statement by a German priest about alleged sexual abuse was incorrectly attributed to Pope Benedict XVI.  Msnbc.com corrected the error and sincerely apologizes for any unintended confusion or offense it has caused.

An Austrian priest avoids mention of Pope Benedict XVI in his Masses. A Philadelphia woman stops going to confession, saying she now sees priests as more flawed than herself. British protesters call for the pontiff to resign.

As the faithful fill churches this Holy Week, many Roman Catholics around the world are finding their relationship to the church painfully tested by new revelations of clerical abuse and suggestions Benedict himself may have helped cover up cases in Germany and the U.S.

There are fears that for those whose commitment is already wavering, the scandal could be the final blow, and a growing chorus is clamoring for the church to embrace full transparency, take a hard line against pedophiles, and reconsider the rule of priestly celibacy.

"There's too many victims, and too much lying from the church about what really happened," said Martin Sherlock, a Catholic newspaper vendor in Dublin, Ireland.

Experts say the church is facing a crisis of historic proportions.

"This is the type of problem that arises really once in a century, I think, and it might even be more significant," said Paul Collins, an Australian church historian and former priest.

'Incompetent people'
Collins, 69, said the abuse controversy was not mentioned by the priest in his own church near Canberra on Palm Sunday, but that the congregation discussed it afterward outside.

"People are outraged really, they're furious with the complete failure of the church's leadership and their view would be that we are led by incompetent people," Collins said.

That view was echoed by many Catholics interviewed around the world by The Associated Press in recent days, although the pope also had defenders.

One of them was John Ryan, a retired glue factory worker, who said he was impressed by the letter Benedict wrote to the Irish faithful earlier this month in which he chastised Irish bishops.

"I was talking to my parish priest last weekend, and we were reading the pope's letter, and he told me: This pope is the most intelligent pope we've had in the last thousand years," said Ryan, 66, after a Mass in Dublin. "I couldn't disagree with that. I don't really think we could do better than with Benedict. I know they're supposed to be infallible, but I'd say most Catholics today would accept that nobody's perfect — not even the pope."

But across the Atlantic, Jasmine Co said her faith in the church was badly shaken.

The 56-year-old nurse, who recently moved to the U.S. from the Philippines, said she has stopped confessing her sins to priests, and is turning to God directly.

"I don't believe in confession to the priest because I don't know if that priest is more of a sinner than I am," Co said after attending a Palm Sunday service in central Philadelphia.

On Sunday in London, about 50 protesters staged a demonstration calling on the pope to resign — something that hasn't happened in 700 years.

Church of Christ, not 'Lord Pope'
The criticism is also coming from pulpits. Udo Fischer, an Austrian priest known for his liberal views, avoids mentioning Benedict and other church leaders by name during his Masses — at least until he sees stronger signals of remorse from the Holy See.

"We always stress that this is the church of Jesus Christ — that of the Lord Jesus and not that of the Lord Pope," Fischer said after a Palm Sunday service in his parish in Paudorf, a village near Vienna.

Parishioners young and old squeezed into pews in Fischer's modern and airy church clutching bunches of pussy willows blessed by the priest.

Video: Victim: Vatican must be ‘held accountable’

Traditionally Catholic Austria, shaken by clergy abuse claims in past years and again in recent weeks, risks a drop in already dwindling support for the church if no concrete action is taken to prevent further abuse and cover-ups, says Regina Polak of the University of Vienna's Institute for Practical Theology.

"The situation is very fragile right now," Polak said. "The potential for frustration is high."

In the pope’s native Germany, the Roman Catholic diocese in the western city of Trier said Monday that 20 of its current and former priests had been accused "in recent weeks" of sexual abuse.

The allegations involved incidents from the 1950s to 1990, AFP reported. Ten of the accused priests have since died and another two have retired.

The BBC reported that the church was launching a hotline for German abuse victims.

In Spain, a heavily Catholic country where secular lifestyles are eroding church attendance, a coalition of more than 100 liberal-minded lay and clergy-based groups called the Vatican's handling of the scandal "irresponsible and insufficient," saying it failed to "put itself firmly on the side of the victims."

In Norway, Oslo's Bishop Bernt Eidsvig told Catholics in a letter last week that "the culture of silence that certain bishops advised is a betrayal."

Perhaps most ominous is the threat to the pope's own authority.

David Gibson, author of "The Rule of Benedict," a biography of the pope, said the criticism focusing on Benedict puts the "the mystique of the papal office" in peril.

"And above all, it diminishes his credibility, his ability to convince people of his message, to have people listen to him. It distances many Catholics, I think, even further from the institutional hierarchical church," said Gibson.

Even as Easter Week began, anxiety was heard in many places, with people struggling to draw a line between the crimes of some priests and their own deep attachment to communities and the beliefs that sustain them.

"At this point in my life I wouldn't leave the church for somebody else's sins," said Linda Faust, 56, after a Mass in Greendale, Wisconsin — the state where the late Rev. Lawrence Murphy was accused of molesting some 200 boys at a school for the deaf. Benedict, at the time Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, is linked to a decision in the 1990s not to defrock Murphy.

Instead, Faust said that she and her husband pray for the child victims, the abusive priests and the archbishops who let them transfer to other parishes.

A key focus for those seeking church reform is celibacy — a tradition dating to Christianity's early days but only made mandatory in the 11th century. Both Collins in Australia and Bishop Geoffrey Siundu, a former Catholic priest in Kenya, said the rule should go.

Siundu now heads the Ecumenical Catholic Church of Christ in Kenya, said the celibacy rule has driven 30 other ex-priests to join his church.

Retired Italian Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini also believes mandatory chastity for churchmen should be thought over to help the church regain lost trust.

Martini, the former archbishop of Milan, told Austria's Die Presse newspaper that only through an open discussion can the church regain its credibility.

Church 'will survive'
Kathrin Radelmayer, 24, attended Mass in Munich, where Ratzinger's handling of a case when he was archbishop there has been questioned. She said she was sticking with the church even though many of her friends and relatives are distancing themselves now.

Video: Biggest crisis for church 'since the Reformation'

"It is such a shock for the church, but the church has withstood a lot in its 2,000 years and I think that it will survive this as well," Radelmayer said.

Marina Buendia, a 22-year-old nurse from Madrid, went to St. Peter's Square in Rome for the Pope's Palm Sunday Mass. She defended the church.

"The news of these cases has come to the Vatican far too late for the Vatican to be held responsible," she said. "I think that the Vatican has accepted the problem, which is a step in the right direction. We are both very religious and feel a very strong personal bond with the pope, which would never be affected by such scandals. As young Catholics, we feel welcome and included by the church."

At a similar Mass in Minneapolis, Teresa Schweitzer, a 45-year-old English teacher, said the handling of abuse cases compounds her disenchantment over other matters, including women denied leadership roles. But she drew comfort from the many Catholic priests and activists she has seen helping the poor and pursuing social justice.

"I've had a lot of disappointments over the years, and I'm hanging by a thread," Schweitzer said. "I keep coming back for the community — the way we support each other in so many ways. Do you give up on that? Or do you stay in it and fight for justice? I think that's where a lot of us are at now."

The Associated Press, NBC News' Andy Eckardt and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.

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