ROME — An escalating scandal over clerical sexual abuse in Europe is heightening calls for greater transparency in the Vatican and a zero-tolerance policy toward abusive priests.
The Vatican is confronting what observers describe as its gravest test in years, with officials fending off allegations that Pope Benedict XVI mismanaged abuse cases that occurred years before his ascension to the papacy in 2005.
The scope of the abuse cases emerging in Europe, and new allegations this week that a Vatican office led by Benedict — then known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — failed to defrock an American priest who was accused of molesting as many as 200 deaf boys, has once again shed a spotlight on Vatican secrecy over such sensitive issues as church finances and abuse cases.
"The pope is at a crossroads," said Marco Politi, papal biographer and longtime Vatican watcher. "He now has to choose whether to move ahead with a clear policy of transparency or whether he will try to limit a tough line and a process of more openness on this matter in the church."
In a scandal in which the crimes often go back decades and have surfaced in different countries at various times, the Vatican appears to be reeling over the pace of the current chapter in Europe.
On Jan. 28, the German weekly Spiegel reported allegations that two priests abused several students in the 1970s and 1980s at an elite Jesuit high school in Berlin. In the ensuing weeks, more than 300 alleged victims have come forward, with hundreds more surfacing in Austria, the Netherlands and Switzerland. Last year, two government reports were released in Ireland detailing thousands of cases of sexual and physical abuse at the hands of Irish clergy from 1930 to 1990.
Officials across Europe are calling for the adoption of zero-tolerance policies, such as those enacted in the United States after thousands of abuse cases emerged there. They are also calling for the Vatican to open the files on more than 3,000 abuse cases that have gone before a powerful church office between 2001 and 2010.
"The church is clearly having problems with their policies and is being forced to change, become more open because of these people coming forward," said Thomas Pfister, a special investigator appointed by the church to look into allegations of abuse at a boarding school in southern Germany. "They can no longer close themselves off. The time of the 'walls of silence' has passed."
In the aftermath of the U.S abuse cases, which came to light in 2002, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted a complete overhaul of the way sex abuse is reported, new policies for quicker response and, most importantly, a strict no-tolerance policy.
The scandal in Europe has the added dimension of raising questions about the response to abuse allegations by a bishop who went on to become pope.
In Germany, a priest and accused sex offender sent to therapy in 1980 on orders approved by Ratzinger, then the archbishop of Munich, was later returned to religious duties, where he reportedly molested more children. The Vatican has said Ratzinger was not aware that the priest was returned to pastoral duties, though the New York Times reports he was copied on a memo that informed him the priest, would be returned to pastoral work within days of beginning psychiatric treatment.
The New York Times also first reported the case of the priest accused of molesting as many as 200 deaf boys in Wisconsin.
In a statement, the Vatican said the decision not to defrock the Rev. Lawrence Murphy was based on the length of time since the allegations, the priest's advanced age and ill health, and the fact that a civil investigation had been dropped.
L'Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, said that a media campaign was under way against Benedict and that the Times article was part of it, showing "the evident and shameful attempt to strike, at any cost, Pope Benedict and his closest collaborators."
In a front page editorial defending the pope, the paper said he had acted with "transparency, firmness and severity."