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Turn your ear to me, come quickly to my rescue, be my rock of refuge, a strong fortress to save me. Since you are my rock and my fortress, for the sake of your name lead and guide me. Free me from the trap that is set for me, for you are my refuge. Into your hands I commit my spirit; redeem me, O Lord, the God of truth.

Psalm 31:2-5
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By Anthony Faiola and William Wan | WSJ | Mar. 26, 2010

ROME -- An escalating scandal over clerical sexual abuse in Europe is heightening calls for greater transparency in the Vatican and a zero-tolerance policy toward abusive priests that would mirror the approach adopted by the U.S. Catholic Church.

The Vatican is confronting what observers describe as its gravest test in years, with officials fending off allegations that Pope Benedict XVI mismanaged abuse cases that occurred years before he ascended to the papacy in 2005. No leading Catholic authorities or organizations have called on Benedict to take personal responsibility for the scandals, and Vatican watchers in Rome strongly maintained Thursday that there is no serious threat to the pope's position.

Yet the scope of the abuse cases emerging in Europe and new allegations this week that a Vatican office led by Benedict -- then known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- failed to defrock an American priest who had allegedly molested as many as 200 deaf boys have again shed a spotlight on Vatican secrecy over such sensitive issues as church finances and abuse cases. It has put the ancient institution, famous for centuries-long debates over changes in church policies, under intense pressure to update its response time.

"The pope is at a crossroads," said Marco Politi, a papal biographer and longtime Vatican watcher. "He now has to choose whether to move ahead with a clear policy of transparency or whether he will try to limit a tough line and a process of more openness on this matter in the church."

In a scandal in which the crimes often go back decades and have surfaced in different countries at various times during the past decade, the Vatican appears to be reeling over the pace of the current chapter in Europe.

On Jan. 28, the German weekly Der Spiegel reported allegations that two priests abused several students in the 1970s and 1980s at an elite Jesuit high school in Berlin. In the ensuing weeks, more than 300 alleged victims have come forward, with hundreds more surfacing in Austria, the Netherlands and Switzerland. Last year, two government reports were released in Ireland detailing thousands of cases of sexual and physical abuse at the hands of Irish clergy from 1930 to 1990.

Officials across Europe are calling for the adoption of zero-tolerance policies, such as those enacted in the United States after thousands of abuse cases emerged there. They are also calling for the Vatican to open the files on more than 3,000 abuse cases that have gone before a powerful church office between 2001 and 2010. In a recent interview, the Vatican's chief prosecutor, Monsignor Charles Scicluna, said 20 percent of the cases had received full Vatican trials.

"The church is clearly having problems with their policies and is being forced to change, become more open because of these people coming forward," said Thomas Pfister, a special investigator appointed by the church to look into allegations of abuse at a boarding school in southern Germany. "They can no longer close themselves off. The time of the 'walls of silence' has passed."

The U.S. reform model

Officials in Europe are increasingly looking to the United States as a model for coping with the crisis here.

In the aftermath of the U.S abuse cases, which came to light in 2002, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted a complete overhaul of the way sex abuse is reported, new policies for quicker response and, most importantly, a strict no-tolerance policy.

According to the new U.S. policies, whenever a priest is accused of abuse, he is immediately suspended from ministry while the accusation is investigated. The abuse is reported not only to the diocese but also to local authorities -- a system used in a limited capacity by Catholic dioceses in Europe.

As part of the U.S. reforms, anyone within the church, including priests and parent volunteers at parochial schools who work with children, must go through a "safe environment program." Children also are put through the program so they can learn how to recognize improper behavior and how to tell adults when it happens.

"You think the problem is resolved and under control, but then you hear more," said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the bishops' conference in Washington. "I can hear people in the U.S. saying this is five, six years behind us already, and yet it's happening all over again. They are now addressing in Europe what we addressed in 2002."

Some critics of how the U.S. scandal was handled, however, say the church's problems with transparency remain. Despite the reforms, they say, few U.S. bishops involved were held accountable.

Benedict under fire

The scandal in Europe has the added dimension of raising questions about the response to abuse allegations by a bishop who went on to become pope.

In Germany, a priest and accused sex offender sent to therapy in 1980 on orders approved by Ratzinger, then the archbishop of Munich, was later returned to religious duties, where he reportedly molested more children. The Vatican has said that Ratzinger was not aware that the priest was returned to pastoral duties.

On Thursday, the Vatican was on the defense again after a New York Times article detailing the case of a priest accused of molesting as many as 200 deaf boys in Wisconsin. In the late 1990s -- about 20 years after his suspected crimes -- his case was reported to the powerful Holy See's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then headed by Ratzinger. The congregation took no action.

In a statement, the Vatican said the decision not to defrock Father Lawrence Murphy was based on the length of time since the allegations, the priest's advanced age and ill health, and the fact that a civil investigation had been dropped.

L'Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, said that a media campaign was underway against Benedict and that the Times article was part of it, showing "the evident and shameful attempt to strike, at any cost, Pope Benedict and his closest collaborators." In a front-page editorial defending the pope, the paper said he had acted with "transparency, firmness and severity."

Vatican authorities have lauded Benedict's response to the Europe crisis as swifter, by church standards, than anyone could have hoped for. They noted his rare apology to the Irish people Saturday, which was sharper in tone and substance to Pope John Paul II's response to the U.S. crisis.

On Wednesday, the Vatican also launched what many here see as the first in the wave of disciplinary actions against European bishops found to be tolerant of sexual abuse, with the pope accepting the resignation of the bishop of Cloyne.

In terms of how the Catholic Church could implement new policies in Europe, experts say the European dioceses could take the same approach the U.S. conference did in 2002, when it drafted a charter and had an accompanying legal document sent to the Vatican for approval. A more direct route would be for the pope to issue new requirements himself -- a move that Vatican insiders say is under intense debate at the Vatican.

The pope "can make any law he wants to," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. "If he wanted to make a zero-tolerance rule universal, he could do it."

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