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Abuse Accusations Besiege Catholic Church

March 17, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Catholics in Ireland and Germany are seeking apologies and explanations as allegations of child abuse have besieged the Vatican's inner-circle. Gwen Ifill reports.
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GWEN IFILL: Now: apologies and explanations in Ireland, Germany, and the Vatican, as Catholics revisit unfinished business.

Allegations of child sexual abuse are once again rocking the Roman Catholic Church, this time across Europe, with revelations that reach into the innermost sanctum of the Vatican.

At his weekly general audience before crowds in Saint Peter’s Square, Pope Benedict XVI said he would soon speak specifically to mounting concerns within the Irish church.

POPE BENEDICT XVI, leader of Catholic Church: As you know, in recent months, the church in Ireland has been severely shaken as a result of the child abuse crisis.

GWEN IFILL: Fifteen thousand cases of sexual, physical and emotional abuse over 60 years have been uncovered in Ireland.

Cardinal Sean Brady, the leader of Ireland’s Roman Catholics, has been accused of covering up sex abuse in the 1970s. Some are calling for him to resign. Brady told parishioners: “I apologize to all those who feel that I have let them down. Looking back, I am ashamed that I haven’t always upheld the values that I profess and believe in.”

Benedict’s pastoral letter, to be sent Friday, is expected to focus on the scandal in Ireland, as well as the broader issue.

POPE BENEDICT XVI: I ask all of you to read it for yourselves with an open heart and in a spirit of faith. My hope is that it will help in the process of repentance, healing and renewal.

GWEN IFILL: That healing is yet to come in Germany, where several hundred cases of child abuse have now been uncovered, some of it decades-old.

The German scandal is an especially delicate matter for the pope, who was archbishop of Munich 30 years ago, before leaving for Rome in 1982. His former archdiocese has said the pontiff, then known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was involved in a 1980 decision to move a priest accused of sex abuse into therapy.

The same priest, Peter Hullermann, returned to the clergy and was later convicted of abuse in German court in 1986. Even after that episode, he returned to a clerical role, suspended again this past Monday after new reports surfaced that he was back working with children.

The Vatican has forcefully denied that Benedict had any role in handling the Hullermann incident.

REVEREND FEDERICO LOMBARDI, Vatican spokesman (through translator): The pope, then archbishop, had absolutely no part in the decisions that led to the placing of this priest in a pastoral position. Therefore, there is no reason to accuse him.

GWEN IFILL: Benedict discussed the widening scandal last week with German Archbishop Robert Zollitsch.

ARCHBISHOP ROBERT ZOLLITSCH, archdiocese of Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany (through translator): The Holy Father has received my report with vigilance, great dismay and great distress. And we had a very deep conversation about this. We want to unveil the truth, and we want an honest clearing-up of this.

GWEN IFILL: The clearing-up will include the pope’s brother, Monsignor Georg Ratzinger. He has admitted to hitting choirboys in an abbey infamous for beatings and sex abuse.

Today, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told parliament that there should be a full accounting.

ANGELA MERKEL, German chancellor (through translator): I think that we all agree that the sexual abuse of minors is a despicable crime and that the only way for our society to come to terms with it is to look for the truth and to find out everything that has happened.

GWEN IFILL: Merkel suggested that victims be compensated, and that the statute of limitations be extended for filing abuse claims.