It often starts as a voice in the wilderness, but can swell into an entire nation's demand for truth. From Ireland to Germany, Europe's many victims of child abuse in the Roman Catholic church are finally breaking social taboos and confronting the clergy to face its demons.
Ireland was the first in Europe to confront the church's worldwide custom of shielding pedophile priests from the law and public scandal. Now that legacy of suppressed childhood horror is being confronted in other parts of the continent — nowhere more poignantly than in Germany, the homeland of Pope Benedict XVI.
The recent spread of claims into the Netherlands, Austria and Italy has analysts and churchmen wondering how deep the scandal runs, which nation will be touched next, and whether a tide of lawsuits will force European dioceses to declare bankruptcy like join their American cousins.
"You have to presume that the cover-up of abuse exists everywhere, to one extent or another. A new case could appear in a new country tomorrow," said David Quinn, director of a Christian think tank, the Iona Institute, that seeks to promote family values in an Ireland increasingly cool to Catholicism.
Quinn noted that stories of systemic physical, sexual and emotional abuse circulated privately in Irish society for decades, but only moved aboveground in the mid-1990s when former altar boy Andrew Madden and orphanage survivor Christine Buckley went public with lawsuits and exposes of how priests and nuns tormented them with impunity.
Floodgates opened for Irish complaints that have topped 15,000 in this country of 4 million. Three government-ordered investigations have shocked and disgusted the nation, which has footed most of the bill to settle legal claims totaling nearly $1.5 billion.
"A lot comes down to: When does that first victim gather the courage to come forward into the spotlight?" Quinn said. "It seems to take that trigger event, the lone voice who says what so many kept silent so long. That's basically happening now in Germany. It could happen next in Spain, Poland, anywhere."
Vatican defends pope
In January, an elite Jesuit school in Berlin declared it was aware of seven child-abuse cases in its past and appointed an outside investigator, Ursula Raue, to seek testimony. Within weeks, she had gathered stories of long-suppressed woe from more than 100 ex-students abused by their Jesuit masters, and from 60 molested by parish priests.
"I always thought that at some point the wave would reach us," said Petra Dorsch-Jungsberger, a commentator on Catholic affairs and retired University of Munich communications professor.
She credited heavy German media coverage of the latest Irish abuse scandal — a November report into decades of cover-up in the Dublin Archdiocese involving approximately 170 priests — with inspiring similar soul-searching in Germany.
"Once the door had been opened, then many others felt they were able to step up and say: That happened to us too," she said.
In recent weeks, new German abuse claims have surfaced on a near-daily basis and spread to Pope Benedict's Bavarian heartland and the Regensberg boys' choir long directed by the pope's brother. Benedict was Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger of Munich from 1977 to 1982, and questions now focus on what role, if any, the pontiff, played in handing pedophile priests to new parishes rather than to the law.
The Vatican on Saturday denounced what it called aggressive attempts to drag Pope Benedict XVI into the spreading scandals of pedophile priests in his German homeland, and contended he has long confronted abuse cases with courage.
In separate interviews, both the Holy See's spokesman and its prosecutor for sex abuse of minors by clergy sought to defend the pope.
"It's rather clear that in the last days, there have been those who have tried, with a certain aggressive persistence, in Regensburg and Munich, to look for elements to personally involve the Holy Father in the matter of abuses," Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi told Vatican Radio.
It's inevitable that all bishops of the day, including Ratzinger, handled abuse complaints against priests in-house, said the Rev. Fergus O'Donoghue, editor of the Irish Jesuit journal Studies.
"The pope was no different to any other bishop at time. The church policy was to keep it all quiet — to help people, but to avoid scandal. Avoiding scandal was a huge issue for the church," he said. "Of course there was cover-up," he added. But worse was "the systematic lack of concern for the victims."
'Typical Vatican cover-up'
In the Netherlands, a former Catholic boarding-school abuse victim is leading a campaign for accountability. Bert Smeets, 58, has formed Mea Culpa, a victims group that has collected testimony from hundreds of abuse victims and is mulling a class-action lawsuit against the Dutch church.
The church has apologized to the victims and set up an inquiry headed by a former government minister, a Protestant. Smeets dismisses that effort as "a typical Vatican cover-up." He said the pressure on the church came from aggressive investigations into abuse in Ireland and the U.S.
In other predominantly Catholic areas of Europe, child-abuse scandals have tarnished individual priests and even a Polish archbishop, but have not mushroomed into a mass movement. In Spain, more than a dozen priests have been convicted of child abuse in recent decades and two potentially larger-scale cases are attracting attention.
Ireland was until relatively recently the most enthusiastically Catholic country in Europe. Its half-dozen seminaries exported priests worldwide. All but one of those seminaries is closed now, illustrating the rapid falloff in Mass attendance as the economy has advanced and secularism has spread.
Quinn, the Dublin think-tank director, noted that a few Irish dioceses are openly warning that they're struggling to pay bills stemming from abuse claims. In the southeast diocese of Kells, the archbishop's house has had to be remortgaged.
"The church is asset-rich but cash-poor," Quinn said, noting that it's the biggest property owner in Ireland but has comparatively little cash in the bank. He said the Vatican, too, has less money on tap than resides in the endowment fund of a typical top-tier U.S. university.