Further revelations of the abuse and molestation of children by priests, and the ongoing cover-up by Catholic Church officials, has drawn widespread condemnation from both Catholics and non-Catholics, shaking the Vatican and Pope Benedict XVI. It was nearly 25 years ago when the first abuse cases began to surface in Boston and Louisiana, and then swept across the United States. Now the scandal is sweeping Europe, and signs are it is spreading across the globe.
The long-running scandal has taken on new vigor, as even more cases come to light and, for the first time in history, the pontiff has been implicated in the massive cover-up. Numerous voices have called for his resignation.
In the 1990s, Benedict, formerly Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, then head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was asked to try a priest who is alleged to have raped up to 200 boys at a U.S. school between 1950 and 1974; the department refused.
As archbishop of Munich, he approved the transfer of a sexually abusive priest to therapy-but failed to notify the authorities. The priest was then sent to another parish where he went on to molest more children.
In 2001, Ratzinger sent a message to all Catholic bishops instructing them to refer cases of alleged sex abuse to the Vatican. Most have interpreted this message as instructing bishops not to go to legal authorities. Without fail, this is what happened.
A 2004 report commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and carried out by John Jay College of Criminal Justice found that 11,000 allegations had been made against 4,392 priests in the United States between 1950 and 2002. While this represented only four percent of American priests, it represented 95 percent of all dioceses.
In 2009, the Irish government published a report showing that tens of thousands of children in Catholic orphanages and reform schools had been raped, abused and enslaved.
The scandal has surfaced in 23 nations so far.
Benedict's response raised the hackles of people around the world. In his homily during the recent Palm Sunday mass, the pope said he would not be intimidated by the "petty gossip of dominant opinion."
The state newspaper of the Vatican, L'Osservatore Romano, accused the media of "clear and ignoble intent of trying to strike Benedict and his closest collaborators."
On March 27, Benedict sent a letter to Catholics in Ireland, expressing "shameful remorse" for the actions of the pedophiles, but did not suggest that anyone should be tried or removed from office. He made no mention of the scandals erupting in other countries around Europe.
The pope is not only the leader of the church, but also the absolute monarch of the Vatican, an independent city-state. Consequently, the pope is considered outside the law of any nation, and most international laws.
The Vatican has used its state status to shield officials from investigation. Pope John Paul II brought Boston's former archbishop Bernard Cardinal Law to live in the Vatican on December 6, 2003-the same day he was ordered to appear before a Massachusetts grand jury to testify in a sex abuse case.
Cases pending in U.S. courts seek to hold the papacy accountable for negligence in the rapes. William McMurry, the lawyer for tthree victims in Kentucky, is seeking to compel the pope and other Vatican officials to answer questions in court, and force the Vatican to turn over pertinent documents.
The Vatican's defense is on purely technical grounds. They argue that American bishops are not employees of the Vatican and since Benedict is the head of state for a foreign country, he is officially immune.
The Vatican's defense has taken on a threatening, some say blackmailing, tone. According to the Associated Press, the Vatican's defense attorney stated that if the pope must testify, "foreign courts could feel empowered to order discovery against [George W. Bush] regarding, for example, such issues as CIA renditions."
As of now, it remains unclear what will happen within the church. The scandal has thrown up questions as to the role of the Catholic Church in society, of how to remove and punish those responsible for the crimes, and, within the church, it has ignited a movement for reform.