VATICAN CITY — The Vatican is facing one of its gravest crises of modern times as sex abuse scandals move ever closer to Pope Benedict XVI — threatening not only his own legacy but that of his revered predecessor.
Benedict took a much harder stance on sex abuse than John Paul II when he assumed the papacy five years ago, disciplining a senior cleric championed by the Polish pontiff and defrocking others. But the impression remains of a woefully slow-footed church and of a pope who bears responsibility for allowing pedophile priests to keep their parishes.
In an editorial on Friday, the National Catholic Reporter in the United States called on Benedict to answer questions about his role "in the mismanagement" of sex abuse cases, not only in the current crisis but during his tenure in the 1980s as archbishop of Munich and then as head of the Vatican's doctrinal and disciplinary office.
It all comes down to the question of what the pope knew and when. The answer will almost certainly determine the fate of Benedict's papacy.
As he approaches Holy Week, the most solemn period on the Christian calendar, victims groups and other critics are demanding he accept personal responsibility. A few say he should resign. Some fear the crisis will alienate Catholics, with a survey in Benedict's native Germany showing disaffection among Catholics while there is deep anger in once very Catholic Ireland.
As the climate worsens, the Vatican is showing increasing impatience and even anger, denouncing what it says is a campaign to smear the pope.
L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, said this week there was a "clear and despicable intention" to strike at Benedict "at any cost."
Defenders of Benedict, such as British Archbishop Vincent Nichols, say that as cardinal he made important changes in church law to crack down on offenders and was not an "idle observer."
French bishops rallied around him in a letter Friday, saying while they deplored clerical sex abuse, the issue "is being used in a campaign to attack you personally."
Still, it is in Germany where Benedict's popularity has taken a real hit. A poll in Stern magazine released this week shows only 39 percent of Germany's Catholics trust the pope, down from 62 percent in late January. Some 34 percent trust the Catholic Church as an institution, down from 56 percent in January. The margin of error was 2.5 percentage points.
But as attention focuses on Benedict, a perhaps thornier question looms over how much John Paul II, beloved worldwide for his inspirational charisma and courageous stand against communism, knew about sex abuse cases and whether he was too tolerant of pedophile priests.
The world-traveling pope has been put on a fast track for sainthood by Benedict in response to popular demand. Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, the emeritus head of the Vatican's saint-making office, said this week that historians who studied his life didn't find anything problematic in John Paul's handling of abuse scandals.