Pressure Mounts For Pope Amid Abuse Revelations

A group of U.S. protesters demonstrate in front of St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. i

Members of the U.S. organization Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, demonstrate against child sex abuse Friday in front of St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. STR/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption STR/AFP/Getty Images
A group of U.S. protesters demonstrate in front of St. Peter's Square at the Vatican.

Members of the U.S. organization Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, demonstrate against child sex abuse Friday in front of St. Peter's Square at the Vatican.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

As the faithful fill churches during Holy Week, a wave of clerical sex abuse revelations is sweeping Europe. The latest allegations come from Italy, just outside Vatican walls.

As the scandal mounts, Pope Benedict XVI is under increasing pressure to give a more forceful response to the most serious crisis of his papacy.

Following weeks of media coverage of sex abuse by priests in the United States, Ireland and Germany, three deaf men from Italy appeared on national TV last week.

Gianni Bisoli, 61, entered a Catholic institute for the deaf in Verona at age 9. He described how he was subjected to three years of sexual abuse. And he listed the abusers' first names — many of whom are still serving as priests.

Bisoli described how he was often taken to the home of the local bishop, who used him as a sexual toy. The network bleeped out the bishop's last name. A total of 67 former students of the same institute for the deaf had signed similar affidavits last year.

Their story was briefly in the news but was quickly swept under the rug.

Robert Mickens, Vatican correspondent for the British Catholic weekly The Tablet, says that was possible thanks to a long entrenched code of silence.

Opinions On Abuse In The Church

"Up until now, the hierarchy in this country has been very powerful with the press, with the courts, in society in general," Mickens says. "They only had to flex their authority, and their friends would help this go away."

In the past decade, 80 Italian priests have been found guilty of sex abuse, but analysts think the real number is much higher and that the latest allegations might trigger more revelations.

The diocese of Bolzano, where other cases emerged this month, has set up a hot line to allow more victims to come forward. It's the first such initiative in Italy, where associations of victims of sex abuse by priests are just being formed.

Roberto Mirabile, president of an association that works on behalf of victims of pedophilia, says cases of sex abuse by priests are known to have occurred in at least 30 Italian towns.

But he acknowledges that victims hesitate to go public because they do not feel protected by civil authorities.

"Apologies are not sufficient," Mirabile said. "The church has to admit that the real problem is the code of silence and hypocrisy, not the individual pedophile priest." The problem "is the silence of those bishops who transferred priests to other parishes to save the church's reputation."

The Vatican has gone on the defensive. Its official daily newspaper accused the international media of waging a smear campaign against the pope.

During his Palm Sunday Mass, Benedict made no direct mention of the crisis but said cryptically that Jesus Christ guides the faithful "toward the courage that doesn't let us be intimidated by petty gossip."

Emboldened by the new European revelations of clerical sex abuse and scrutiny of Benedict's handling of past cases, lawsuits in Oregon and Kentucky are seeking to depose the pope and his closest aides. They want to show that U.S. bishops are employees of the Holy See and that the Vatican is therefore responsible for their failure to report abuse to civil authorities.

The plaintiffs' lawyers point to a 1962 Vatican document that describes how bishops should deal with abuse of minors by priests and how abusers can be forgiven.

Texas lawyer Daniel Shea first learned of the document when it was referred to in a letter written by the future Pope Benedict.

"We have obstruction of justice," Shea said. "This demonstrates with absolute certainty that the church considers the absolution of the priest who has abused a child, to be part of the course and scope of the bishop's employment. These are crimes against humanity."

Vatican lawyers plan to argue that Pope Benedict has immunity as a head of state. But lawyers of sex abuse victims from Germany to Australia have said they also will cite the Vatican documents in similar court cases in their countries.

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