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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

Its MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Throughout Europe, the Catholic Church is reeling from charges that hundreds of minors were sexually abused by priests. Catholics in the United States are also feeling the repercussions, remembering a similar scandal less than a decade ago.

Well hear voices from Boston and Chicago in a moment.

KELLY: But first to Europe. It is Holy Week for Catholics. Thats a period of penance, when the faithful are suppose to admit their guilt, examine wrongdoing and ask God for forgiveness.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome.

(Soundbite of singing at mass)

POGGIOLI: One of the highlights of Easter Week is the Holy Thursday mass in Rome's Basilica of San Giovanni. Here yesterday, Pope Benedict celebrated the ritual washing of feet of 12 priests. An Irish priest at the ceremony explained its meaning.

Unidentified Man (Priest): The washing of feet is a gesture which calls each of us to be sensitive to the needs of our brothers and sisters.

POGGIOLI: In his homilies this week, Benedict has not mentioned the scandals swirling around the Vatican's doorstep. But 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.

Mr. ROBERT MICKENS (The Tablet): They don't fully grasp the seriousness of this situation.

POGGIOLI: Robert Mickens is the Vatican correspondent for the British weekly The Tablet.

Mr. MICKENS: They really believe that they can just ride this out by flying high and not getting involved in it, just taking the hits as they may, plodding along, hoping that like everything else this is going to end up on the back pages and then disappear.

POGGIOLI: However, ongoing revelations of sex abuse by the clergy have caused soul-searching inside many European churches. Swiss bishops admitted this week 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.

Robert Mickens says the Vaticans wall of silence is still impenetrable.

Mr. MICKENS: Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and Pope Benedict, has always worked and always insisted upon secrecy. And so hes always felt that bishops, the leaders of the church, this small group of men, should be able to work behind closed doors without the preying eyes of the press.

POGGIOLI: 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 hotline 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 British Catholic weekly 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, the weekly said, that the current wave of sexual abuse revelations could reach any country at any time.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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