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Vatican Abuse Scandal Intensifies as Another Bishop Resigns

April 23, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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As part of a weeklong series from the Vatican, Margaret Warner reports on the church's growing sex abuse scandal, following the latest resignations from bishops in the Irish and Belgian churches.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: The resignation of another bishop has capped off a tumultuous week for the Vatican and the pope.

Margaret Warner is in Rome tonight.

MARGARET WARNER: News of the resignation splashed across newspapers in Belgium today: a sex scandal in Bruges. Belgian bishop resigns.

Seventy-three-year-old Roger Vangheluwe served as bishop of Bruges since 1984. He’s the first Belgian priest to resign in the latest wave of the clergy sex abuse scandal. A spokesman for the diocese read his statement.

PETER ROSSEL, spokesperson, Bruges Diocese (through translator): When I was not yet a bishop, and sometimes after, I sexually abused a young person from within my close entourage. This has marked the victim forever.

MARGARET WARNER: The bishop’s resignation was immediately accepted by Pope Benedict XVI. It wasn’t the first. Yesterday, the pope accepted the resignation of another bishop, James Moriarty of Kildare, Ireland. He is the third Irish bishop to step down since December.

And there are growing calls for the country’s top prelate, Cardinal Sean Brady’s resignation. Also yesterday, the head of the church in England and Wales, Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols, apologized for the scandal.

He said, “These terrible crimes and the inadequate response by some church leaders grieve us all.”

The pope has been under growing pressure to respond to hundreds of new accusations of child sexual abuse by priests across Europe. On Sunday, in Malta, the pope addressed thousands of the faithful in an open-air mass. He made no mention of the scandal there. But, afterwards, he met with eight alleged victims, all men now in their 30s and 40s. The meeting, the first since the European scandal erupted, was tearful.

Laurence Grech was among the victims.

LAURENCE GRECH, victim: He listened to us. You know, he told me: “I am very proud. And I pray for you to have the courage to tell your story out. You know, I am very proud of you.”

MARGARET WARNER: Back in Rome, at his mass on Wednesday in Saint Peter’s Square, the pope addressed the controversy and seemed to promise an additional response. He spoke about his meetings in Malta.

POPE BENEDICT XVI, leader of Catholic Church (through translator): I share their suffering. And I prayed with them with emotion, assuring them of church action.

MARGARET WARNER: This European scandal is also reverberating in the U.S. Catholic Church, which saw an explosion of sexual abuse cases in 2002.

Yesterday, attorney Jeff Anderson, who has filed thousands lawsuits alleging sex abuse by clergy in the last decade, brought another federal suit, this time against the pope.

JEFF ANDERSON, attorney: It is the Vatican,. It is the current pope and his predecessors.

MARGARET WARNER: Anderson and other victims advocates in both the U.S. and Europe assert that the Vatican is ultimately responsible for the way all such charges have been handled and mishandled and that all roads lead to Rome.

JEFFREY BROWN: A short time ago, I talked with Margaret in Rome.

So, Margaret, it was another very difficult week for the church and the pope, but also one where they took some steps to publicly address the criticisms.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s right, Jeff.

After weeks and weeks of really public silence on the issue, in the face of growing criticism, not only of the Vatican, but of his own role in the way he’s handled some sex abuse cases, the pope this week did take steps to demonstrate not only concern, but emotion in that meeting with the victims in Malta.

Now, the defenders of the church here say it is not a moment too soon, that, really, the Vatican has appeared to be completely behind the curve, lost control of the conversation and debate as these — as these cases have mushroomed throughout Europe.

But the victims advocates groups say, of course, he hasn’t done nearly enough. And they’re looking for much firmer steps, including making not just abusive priests accountable, but also abusive — I mean, also bishops who transferred some of these priests from parish to parish.

That’s why the resignations of the Irish and Belgium priests this week — or, rather, the pope’s acceptance of them, was so significant, because, in the past, sometimes, the Vatican has not wanted to accept those resignations. And, in fact, there are still two other Irish bishops who have asked to resign or offered their resignations that still haven’t been accepted.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, in your report, we heard the pope talking about that meeting you just referred to with the sex abuse victims in Malta. And he said — quote — he was “assuring them of church action.”

Now, what might that mean? What are people telling you?

MARGARET WARNER: That is a very — the answer to that is completely murky, Jeff. Nobody seems to know. And the Vatican won’t — won’t put meat on the bones of that.

Now, the victims groups advocates want him to issue, say, some kind of a worldwide declaration or instruction to bishops all over the world about how they should handle charges like this or they should have a zero-tolerance policy.

I talked to the lawyer for the Vatican in the U.S. today, Jeffrey Lena, and he said, you know, that is a fundamental misunderstanding of the power relationship between the pope and the bishops on administrative matters.

Whatever the truth, wherever the truth lies on that, I did speak to the pope’s spokesman. And, in terms of just explaining to the public what it means, I asked him, well, why did the pope say what he said on Wednesday, which was much ballyhooed in the United States as a major step forward? And he said, oh, well, the pope always reports on his recent trips, and he was reporting on his trip to Malta.

So, so far, it’s fair to say the Vatican has not expanded on what the pope meant or what he intends.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, just briefly, Margaret, what about — it’s early in your visit, but what about the atmosphere? Do you get the sense from people you have talked to that they feel embattled? How emotionally charged is it?

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, they feel very embattled.

I mean, we went today from a press conference by lawyers for some abuse victims right at a parish church here in Rome, who insist they went to the Vatican in 2007 to tell them about this particular priest. They say the Vatican did nothing, and, by the time the Italian authorities arrested this priest in ’08, that he had abused more little boys.

We went — from there, I went to see the head of a seminary here in Rome, who said — you know, he faulted the Vatican for the way they have handled it, but he said, it is so emotional now that, whatever any of us say, he said, just adds fuels to the fire. And he said, most of us feel as if we’re being sucked into a swamp.

So, it is a very emotional issue, completely unresolved. And it really feels like the early, early days of the sex abuse scandal in the United States.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Margaret Warner in Rome for us.

And we will hear a lot more from you next week. Thanks a lot.

MARGARET WARNER: Thanks, Jeff.