By John Cooney
Saturday March 13 2010
A depressing week for Pope Benedict dramatically escalated last night into an unprecedented papal crisis when he was directly implicated in a cover-up of a German paedophile priest when he was Cardinal Archbishop of Munich 30 years ago.
The latest revelations are so potentially damaging to the reputation of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger that speculation was mounting last night that they could severely, perhaps even irreparably, damage his moral authority as Pope Benedict XVI.
It was being speculated that the German Pope could conceivably have to recognise that his position as supreme pontiff could become untenable -- and do what was until now considered impossible, resign from the Petrine throne.
Benedict got a first-hand readout of the scope of the scandal yesterday in his native land from the head of the German Bishop's Conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, who reported that the pontiff had expressed "great dismay and deep shock" over the scandal, but encouraged bishops to continue searching for the truth.
Less than a month after the Pope's summit meeting in Rome with the Irish bishops, at which he ordered them to step united in line behind the papal throne, the abuse issue is no longer "an Irish problem", as one senior Vatican cardinal crassly claimed. Clerical child abuse is now a German problem. It has become a Dutch problem. It is also an Austrian problem.
This Europe-wide dimension, on top of similar scandals and cover-ups in the United States, the Philippines and Mexico, to name but a few, makes it Rome's problem. To paraphrase former US president Harry Truman, the buck stops on the Pope's desk, as the spiritual leader of over one billion Catholics worldwide.
In the Pope's homeland of Germany the number of alleged victims nationwide has soared to 300 since the scandals first broke last month in a Jesuit-run boarding school in Berlin.
The Dutch church has climbed to 350 complaints just a week after the Salesians first admitted they were investigating claims that three pupils in a school were abused in the 1960s. In Austria, the Benedictine arch-abbot of St Peter's in Salzburg has resigned after admitting he abused a 12-year-old boy 40 years ago.
Worse still for Pope Benedict, the public spotlight has zoomed in on his older brother (86), Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, who denies that the issue of sexual abuse came to his notice when he was master of Germany's most illustrious group of choir boys in Regensburg from 1964 until 1994.
A former singer in the choir has alleged it was well known among the boarders that a headmaster of the school, now dead, would summon two or three of the boys from their dormitories to come up to his room, where abuse would take place.
"The issue of sexual abuse never came up but if I had known with what exaggerated brutality he (the former headmaster) had proceeded, then I would have said something," Mgr Georg said on Tuesday.
Questions are being asked about how the Pope dealt with abusive clergy when he was Cardinal Archbishop of Munich-Freising from 1977 to 1982, before he moved to Rome to head the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.
Cardinal Ratzinger's central role in handling abuse cases as 'the Vatican Rotweiller' has come back to haunt him as Pope Benedict, principally his 2001 confidential directive to bishops "on more serious crimes". This gave the Doctrinal Congregation control over how the church handles cases of sexual abuse of minors by priests.
This week Vatican spin-doctors robustly presented this directive as an important advance in making sure priest perverts were brought to justice.
The Vatican spokesman, Fr Frederico Lombardi, stressed it dealt with how canon law treated cases, and insisted this was not a substitute for civil law, which deals with the offence separately.
However, the media has interpreted the directive as a ban on bishops reporting serious accusations to civil authorities. The rub is that a personal letter from Cardinal Ratzinger to bishops accompanying the 2001 document said complaints against paedophile priests were covered by "pontifical secret", to be handled by bishops in strict confidentiality. Thus, the charge of "cover-up" against the Pope.
The Irish bishops at their Wednesday news conference in Maynooth backed the Vatican interpretation and accused the media of misrepresentation of Benedict. The Bishop of Dromore, John McAreavey, said it was clear to the bishops at their Rome summit that the 2001 letter "in no way precluded church authorities from their civil obligations, especially in regard to reporting and cooperating fully with the civil authorities."
The Irish bishops may have made the wrong call. Only hours after the Pope's meeting with Cardinal Zollitsch, the world's attention switched to his involvement in the 'Fr H' cover-up. Benedict is now in the eye of the biggest sex abuse crisis to hit the Vatican. Whether he can survive is doubtful -- if the Catholic Church he rules is also to survive.