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Pope Marks 5th Anniversary Amid Criticism from American Catholics

April 19, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Pope Benedict celebrated his fifth anniversary as head of the Catholic Church under continuing scrutiny over the Church's handling of sexual abuse allegations. Tom Bearden reports from Denver on the reaction of American Catholics to the scandals plaguing the Vatican.

JEFFREY BROWN: Next: American Catholics respond to the troubles of their church.

At the Vatican today, Pope Benedict XVI celebrated his fifth anniversary as pontiff with a private lunch with cardinals. The official Vatican newspaper reported the pope spoke of the church as a — quote — “wounded sinner,” words that came as he and the church continue to face criticism around the world for the way they have handled the sexual abuse cases.

NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden looks at how Catholics in the Denver area are reacting.

TOM BEARDEN: Gwyn Green grew up Catholic, attended Catholic schools through college, and considered priests and nuns her friends. She goes to church regularly…

GWYN GREEN, churchgoer: The first reading is from the Acts of the Apostles, chapter nine, verses one through 20.

TOM BEARDEN: … but not to a Catholic Church. This is Saint Joseph Episcopal Church in suburban Denver. She says she made that decision because she believes the Catholic hierarchy deliberately covered up the fact that priests were abusing children.

GWYN GREEN: I know I am not the only person who feels betrayed by the hierarchy. And I am certainly not the only person who feels they can no longer attend mass. And I would say that I feel like I’m in exile. That’s exactly how I feel. It’s very hard, because I love my church.

TOM BEARDEN: Over the weekend, Pope Benedict met with victims of abuse in Malta. That coupled with a recent Vatican statement that priests who molest would be brought to justice are just the latest developments in a months-long controversy over the pope’s past role in sex abuse cases.

REVEREND FEDERICO LOMBARDI, Vatican spokesman: The Holy Father met a small group of persons who were sexually abused by members of the clergy. He was deeply moved by their stories and expressed his shame and sorrow.

TOM BEARDEN: Critics charge that Benedict didn’t do enough about abusive priests when was an archbishop in Germany and later as a cardinal in charge of church doctrine. His recent apology to Catholics in Ireland for another scandal there has not quieted the criticism.

JIM SHEEHAN, Ireland: It’s far, far too late to be coming out with a letter like this. It should have actually come out a long, long time ago.

TOM BEARDEN: These latest developments have brought fresh attention to a story that is quite familiar to American Catholics, where sex abuse scandals have attracted national media attention since 2002.

We asked a number of Catholics in the Denver area, from the devout to the critical, what they think of the way the Vatican has handled the issue and whether or not it’s affected their faith.

Gwyn Green believes Pope Benedict personally covered up abuse cases and that the entire church leadership shares the blame.

GWYN GREEN: I think the system is corrupt, not in the people who go to church, not in the church as people, but in the hierarchy. I think the hierarchy is corrupt, because they have covered this up. And to — to just dismiss any charges and just have no concern about children at all is beyond my comprehension. It is totally beyond my comprehension.

TOM BEARDEN: She wants the church to open the records on past abuses and give financial compensation to victims.

FERNANDO CHAVEZ, catholic: Maria, you need a sweater, too.

TOM BEARDEN: Fernando and Clare Chavez view the scandal very differently. They’re lifelong Catholics and the parents of five small children. We visited them on a Sunday morning as they struggled to get their kids ready to attend mass.

CLARE CHAVEZ, catholic: Believe it or not, I think we’re good to go.

TOM BEARDEN: The Chavezes think the pope has been wrongly attacked.

CLARE CHAVEZ: I think the recent coverage of the — of Pope Benedict has been unfair. I do. And I know a lot of Catholics who feel the same way, that — that you’re not — you’re not getting the whole story. And, so, until you see both sides, you know, it’s hard to make a judgment as to what’s going on.

TOM BEARDEN: Mrs. Chavez has sympathy for the victims, but says the entire church shouldn’t be condemned for the actions of a relative few.

CLARE CHAVEZ: It sounds to me like individual bishops made some bad decisions. And, again, it can’t color everybody. I don’t believe that there’s — I mean, I think, as human beings, we sometimes lean towards conspiracy theories.

TOM BEARDEN: The Chavezes say the scandal hasn’t affected their faith or their relationship with the church. In fact, one of their sons is an altar boy, and another will join him.

Denver is about 13 percent Catholic and is home to Regis University, Colorado’s only Catholic college. Sister Peg Maloney has been director of university ministry at the Jesuit school since 2005.

SISTER PEG MALONEY, Religious Sisters of Mercy: I was working in a diocese in Colorado Springs for the bishop’s office when it — when it was first sort of exploding in the United States, when Boston and Baltimore and New York and all of those archdioceses were being investigated.

It’s horribly shocking. And it’s — it’s appalling in so many ways and at so many different levels.

TOM BEARDEN: She believes, when the allegations first surfaced, church leaders were led astray by psychiatrists who said abusers could be cured.

SISTER PEG MALONEY: So, in one sense, I believe that there were some bishops who were acting on the best advice they could get at that time. But, later on, I think, when it — when it became apparent that they were moving them around in order to avoid scandal or avoid repeated behavior, they were operating partly on their own ignorance and partly in defense of the church, trying not to create a scandal, and, in some cases, to protect the identity of victims as well.

TOM BEARDEN: A new chapter in the story recently unfolded in Denver. A popular priest at a large suburban Catholic Church, Father Mel Thompson, was accused of molesting a child nearly 40 years ago. The archdiocese says the priest was relieved of his duties the day after the allegation was made pending an internal investigation.

Sister Maloney says the speed of that action shows the U.S. church has changed.

SISTER PEG MALONEY: I think there is — there is no question that, in North America, the church has responded dramatically and — and, in many cases, very effectively in terms of responding to the needs of people who were victimized.

And I think whatever is erupting now in Ireland and Germany and other places in the world, I think they’re going to follow the pattern of what the U.S. bishops did here.

TOM BEARDEN: The archdiocese says the steps taken were mandated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002 and are not a new policy. But the speed still surprised many.

STAN CURRENT, former Catholic Church member: That is a huge change. And — but we will see how it, you know, proceeds from here.

TOM BEARDEN: Stan Current remains skeptical. He first became an advocate for abuse survivors in 2002, while living in Boston.

STAN CURRENT: Confronting the church was almost like confronting your mother. There seemed to be denial and just trying to sweep everything under the carpet.

TOM BEARDEN: He says that, after years of trying to comfort victims and demanding the church accept responsibility, he finally left the church altogether, although he says he is still a devout Christian.

STAN CURRENT: It’s really about having a personal relationship with the Lord. And the church or any institution can either help in that or hinder it. And I cannot go back to the church until survivors feel like the church is being more responsive and — and doing more to protect children.

TOM BEARDEN: Last week, the Vatican made clear for the first time what it said was a longstanding policy, that church officials should report abuse cases to police if local laws required it. But the statement didn’t specifically call for a zero-tolerance policy.

Jeb Barrett wasn’t impressed.

JEB BARRETT, director, Denver Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests: Yes, I find it amusing, because some of us would assume that that should have been the policy all along.

TOM BEARDEN: Barrett, an abuse survivor and director of the Denver chapter of SNAP, or Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, believes the church will continue to try to cover up most abuse cases.

JEB BARRETT: We are more concerned about the continuing cover-up of complaints against the church and against priests, bishops and nuns. Be hopeful, and — because of the kind of publicity this is getting now.

TOM BEARDEN: The turmoil shows no sign of quieting down internationally. And a CNN poll showed 74 percent of American Catholics disapproved of how the church has dealt with the problem of sexual abuse.

At the parish level, the Chavezes say their experience is, the U.S. church’s moving to protect children more effectively.

FERNANDO CHAVEZ: I teach catechism. So, I have — before I could even teach that, I had to take a class on awareness of, you know, certain behaviors and what is acceptable and what is not acceptable.

TOM BEARDEN: Clare Chavez says her parish is being very cautious about who it allows around children, running background checks on everyone.

CLARE CHAVEZ: It shows that the church is really taking this seriously, that it is not a small thing, even though it’s a small number of people who have done it. They are looking, I think, in every corner to make sure that doesn’t happen again.

TOM BEARDEN: As for Father Mel Thompson, the latest priest accused of abusing a child, police say that, even if the allegation can be proven, the statute of limitations ran out long ago, making criminal prosecution impossible.