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Associated Press/Photo by Alessandra Tarantino

Facing facts

News of the Year | At the end of a difficult year, the Roman Catholic Church reflects on its worldwide sexual abuse scandals

Sexual abuse scandals continued to fester in the Roman Catholic Church this year, with accounts of abuse and cover-ups in Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, and Ireland. Five hundred victims came forward in Belgium, including the nephew of the Bishop of Bruges, who resigned in disgrace. Five bishops in Ireland stepped down after they had covered up scandals. As the year comes to a close, Church leaders have been reflecting on the hardships, but victims want more than reflection-they want action.

During his Christmas speech, Pope Benedict XVI noted that it had been a difficult year for the Church, which faced "humiliation" as hundreds of sex abuse victims named priests as perpetrators. "We must ask ourselves what was wrong in our proclamation, in our whole way of living the Christian life, to allow such a thing to happen," he said, adding that part of the blame lay with a 1970s culture that did not believe in evil or good and saw pedophilia as "fully in conformity with man and even children."

Speaking before a Belgian parliamentary inquiry a day after the pope's end-of-year speech, a disgraced Church leader issued a warning for Roman Catholics. Former Cardinal Godfried Danneels, who admitted that he helped protect the Bishop of Bruges after he abused his nephew, told the Church "to look its dark side in the eyes" and to become more transparent and open. Victims responded by telling him to lead the way. Lieve Halsberghe, the Belgium leader for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said in a statement that Danneels may know more about abuse than any other person in the Catholic hierarchy: "So instead of telling others what to do, he needs to take his own advice and 'come clean' now."

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The pain experienced by victims became especially apparent this year. In Belgium, a report revealed that sexual abuse led to 19 attempted and 13 successful suicides. In May, 43-year-old American William Lynch allegedly lured a priest from his California retirement home and severely beat him. Lynch pleaded "not guilty" and said during his trial he would introduce evidence that the priest sexually abused him and his brother 35 years ago.

The pope has received his share of criticism for the way he handled sex abuse cases years ago when he was archbishop of Munich and the prefect in Rome for the office that dealt with clerical sexual misconduct. In one instance, Benedict approved the transfer of a priest who resumed parish duties despite being convicted of sexual abuse.

In reaction to the scandal in Ireland, Benedict issued a letter that sternly rebuked Church leaders there and announced an investigation of the country's churches and seminaries. The Vatican also revised its internal code to deal with offending priests more quickly. But David Clohessy, executive director of SNAP, called on the pope to clear himself by revealing all the records for the period when he was handling sex abuse cases for the Vatican.

Meanwhile, the scandal and settlements continue in the United States, where a judge in San Diego ruled that lawyers could release 10,000 pages of secret documents regarding alleged abusers. The spread of the scandal worldwide has disproved the Church's earlier assertion that the problem was solely an American one.

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