New Catholic child sex abuse allegations

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MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. The Catholic Church in Rome is struggling to deal with multiple sex abuse controversies. The latest involves allegations that church officials, including the current Pope, sought to keep secret a sex abuse scandal in Wisconsin. The Vatican today denied a cover up in the case, but the controversy comes just after similar allegations emerged in Germany and after Pope Benedict XVI's apology to church abuse victims in Ireland. John Allen covers the Vatican for the National Catholic Reporter. He says the Vatican sex abuse problem is now global.

JOHN ALLEN: When this exploded in the United States almost a decade ago in 2002 there was a tendency in some quarters in Rome to see this largely as an American problem, or at least a problem that was sort of regionally limited. Subsequent experience, particularly, of course, the scandals that are now erupting all across Europe and in other parts of the world have made it crystal clear that this is in fact a global problem, one which the Catholic Church and the Vatican will probably be dealing with for some time to come.

WERMAN: Is it a global problem or is it a European and American problem? I know the Catholic Church has a lot of their flock in China right now. Could you see this extending to Asia?

ALLEN: Well look, I mean of the 1.2 billion Catholics in the world today, two-thirds of them live in southern hemisphere, that's Latin American, Africa and Asia. By mid century, that's going to be about three quarters. Now if we assume that he patterns that we have seen in the way the church has handled cases of sexual abuse, which is that even though they have very tough policies, in decades past they tended to cover them and try to handle them internally. If we assume that pattern is a global pattern, then what that tells me is that these scandals have yet to reach two-thirds of the Catholic world. In other words, as bad as it has been to date, it actually could get a lot worse.

WERMAN: So what is the significance of this for the church as a whole, as an institution?

ALLEN: Well I think it means in the first place, that the church is probably going to be tied, and this Pope in particular, will probably be tied down trying to put out these fires for some time to come. And, of course, all of the energy that is devoted to trying to clean up this mess is energy that is not devoted to bringing the church's voice and its moral authority to bear on other contemporary human problems, whether they're poverty or the arms race or abortion or whatever the issue may be.

WERMAN: What do you think this means for the Vatican and for the Pope himself, Pope Benedict?

ALLEN: Well I think the new dimension is this; the Vatican has always been criticized for its sort of corporate response to the sexual abuse crisis. But the new piece of the puzzle is the Pope's own past on this issue, that is his personal history, is now being called into question. Both from the five years, three decades ago when he was a Diocesan Bishop in Munich, Germany, and his more than 20 years of service in the Vatican as a senior official. Now the Vatican will insist that much of that criticism has either been exaggerated or is simply grossly unfair. They will say that prior to 2001 he actually was not involved in handling cases of sexual abuse, and after that when he was given that responsibility by John Paul II, he became very aggressive, certainly by historical standards, and a much more aggressive response than we had seen previously from the Vatican. But the point is that whether it's fair or unfair, the practical reality is that this growing scrutiny about the Pope's record for the first time calls into question his personal moral authority to lead the church out of this mess.

WERMAN: Do you think, John Allen, that the Pope could fall? Are there mechanisms to actually remove a Pope?

ALLEN: No there is no mechanism in church law to force a Pope to go. There is an article of church law that provides for a Pope to voluntarily resign. But it has been invoked only a handful of times in more than 2,000 years of church history. The last time was in the early 15th century and that was sort of down the barrel of a gun to heal a major schism. So I think this is the longest of long shot scenarios that Benedict the XVI would resign. I think the more realistic scenario is that at least on this issue, that is the sexual abuse crisis; his papacy might be effectively paralyzed for some time to come. The deeper question will be for all of those Catholics all over the world who just don't know what to make of this, will it increasingly be the case that they question their confidence, not just in the church in a generic sense, but in this Pope particularly. When the dust settles and when fair minded people look at the Pope's record, is it going to withstand scrutiny and I think that's the question that is up for grabs at this moment.

WERMAN: John Allen with the National Catholic Reporter thank you very much for your time.

ALLEN: You're welcome.