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High crimes

Religion | Sex abuse scandal rocks Catholics in Europe

Issue: "O Jerusalem," April 10, 2010

The Roman Catholic sex abuse scandal has dropped from the front pages in the United States, but new evidence of widespread wrongdoing in Europe is shaking up that continent. The scandal in Europe, as it did in the United States, has two elements-the sexual molestation of minors by priests, and the cover-up of that crime by higher church authorities.

• In Ireland, where thousands claim abuse, the scandal has engulfed Cardinal Sean Brady, the head of the Irish church. Brady admits that in 1975 he took part as a canon lawyer in a secret church hearing about priest Brendan Smyth. At the hearing church authorities told a boy and a girl who had been molested by Smyth, who died in prison 22 years later, to take oaths of silence with regard to the abuse. Pope Benedict sent a letter of apology to Ireland's Catholics about the rampant abuse, but did not suggest that Brady should step down.

• In the Netherlands, hundreds of abuse victims are considering a class-action lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Church. The church, in response, has apologized to victims and appointed a prominent Protestant to lead an inquiry into the abuse claims. Similar abuse claims have surfaced in Austria, Spain, and Switzerland.

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• Most ominously for the church, abuse claims in the pope's native Germany have been growing rapidly. In one case during the 1980s the Munich archdiocese, at a time when Benedict was archbishop there, allowed a priest suspected of sexual abuse to continue pastoral work. The priest later faced new accusations of sexual abuse and was convicted of the crime in 1986. Vatican officials say someone under Benedict handled the case and Benedict didn't know about the abuser's continued work.

The pope has also drawn sharp criticism for a letter he wrote to bishops when he was a senior Vatican official in 2001, in which he instructed bishops to forward all abuse cases to Rome and to keep quiet about them. Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, Germany's justice minister, says this amounted to "a wall of silence" that protected predators from authorities. The Vatican said the letter was not meant to prevent bishops from reporting abuse to police, but Irish Bishop John McAreavey said bishops "widely misinterpreted" the letter.

Investigations, meanwhile, continued. The German government on March 24 created a special committee to investigate hundreds of abuse claims and to review the country's statute of limitations with a view to allowing civil and criminal cases against church officials. The Irish government is reportedly continuing its investigations, as well.

Prominent atheist Christopher Hitchens, in an article for Slate.com, urged what could be called a Romans 13 approach not just to the predators but to their protectors: "When are we going to see what the parents and relatives of the devastated children want to see and need to see: a senior accomplice of the cover-up actually facing a jury?"

Timothy Lamer
Timothy Lamer

Tim is managing editor of WORLD magazine.

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