European Bishops Examine Church's Wrongdoing

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Throughout Europe, Catholics are reeling from ongoing revelations of hundreds of cases of sex abuse of minors by priests and accusations that Pope Benedict XVI may have helped cover-up cases of molestation.

For the Roman Catholic Church, Holy Week is a period of penance, when the faithful are supposed to admit their guilt, examine wrongdoing and ask God for forgiveness. During the Holy Thursday Mass in Rome's Basilica of San Giovanni, Pope Benedict celebrated the ritual washing of feet of 12 priests, a "gesture which calls each of us to be sensitive to the needs of our brothers and sisters," according to one Irish priest in attendance.

But in his homilies this week, Benedict has not mentioned the scandals swirling around the Vatican's doorstep. And throughout Europe — from Warsaw to Vienna to the Vatican itself — top prelates are defending the pope from what is seen as a media campaign to smear him and the Catholic Church.

"They don't fully grasp the seriousness of this situation," says Robert Mickens, Vatican correspondent for the British weekly The Tablet. "They really believe that they can just ride this out by flying high, not getting involved in it, just taking the hits as they may, plodding along, hoping that like everything else this ends up on back pages, and then disappear," Mickens adds.

However, ongoing revelations of sex abuse by the clergy have caused soul-searching inside many European churches.

Swiss bishops admitted this week that they had underestimated the problem and are now telling victims to consider filing criminal complaints.

In Germany, bishops are considering mandatory or automatic reporting of abuse cases to police.

In Austria, a laywoman has been appointed to head an independent commission to draw up guidelines on how to deal with sexual abuse.

In Italy, bishops ended their annual meeting this week with a vague pledge of cooperation with police.

In Norway, Oslo's bishop Bernt Eidsvig told Catholics that the culture of silence that certain bishops advised is betrayal.

But all measures announced in Europe fall short of the zero-tolerance policy adopted by U.S. bishops after the clerical sex abuse scandal erupted in 2002.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict, "has always worked and always insisted upon secrecy," Mickens says.

The pope has "always felt bishops, leaders of church, this small group of men should be allowed to work behind closed doors without prying eyes of the press," Mickens adds.

But pressure from victims is mounting.

The German weekly Der Spiegel reports that hundreds of victims have gone public in Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Denmark.

The new hot line set up by the German church to counsel victims was overrun on the first day by almost 4,500 callers.

And after years of reluctance to move against members of the church, civil authorities are now taking the initiative.

The Swiss government has called for a central registry of pedophile priests to prevent them from coming into contact with children.

And the German government is holding a round-table discussion on abuse this month that will include church representatives.

An editorial in The Tablet went further and called for an international commission of distinguished jurists and other experts to review what has occurred.

"It has become painfully obvious that the current wave of sexual abuse revelations could reach any country at any time," the editorial said.

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