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VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI opened Holy Week on Sunday amid one of the most serious crises facing the church in decades, with questions about his handling of cases of pedophile priests and the Vatican acknowledging its “moral credibility” was on the line.
Benedict made no direct mention of the scandal in his Palm Sunday homily. But one of the prayers, recited in Portuguese during Mass, was “for the young and for those charged with educating them and protecting them.”
Jesus Christ, Benedict said in his homily, guides the faithful “toward the courage that doesn’t let us be intimidated by the chatting of dominant opinions, towards patience that supports others.”
Palm Sunday commemorates Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, and is the start of the church’s Holy Week, which includes the Good Friday re-enactment of Christ’s crucifixion and death and his resurrection on Easter Sunday.
This year, the most solemn week on the Catholic Church’s liturgical calendar has been stained by a clerical abuse scandal that has spread across Europe to the pope’s native Germany.
In Austria, where several cases have come out in recent weeks, the archbishop of Vienna announced the creation of a church-funded but clergy-free and independent commission to look into Austrian abuse claims.
The commission will be run by a woman, the former governor of Styria province, and is not meant to take the place of a possible state-run investigative commission, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn told public broadcaster ORF on Sunday.
The Vatican has been on the defensive amid questions about the pope’s handling of sex abuse cases when he was archbishop of Munich and when he headed the Vatican’s doctrinal office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was Munich archbishop when a priest was allowed to resume pastoral work with children even while receiving therapy for pedophilia. He was subsequently convicted of abusing minors. In addition, a case has come to light in which Ratzinger’s deputy at the Congregation told Wisconsin bishops to quash a church trial for a priest alleged to have abused up to 200 deaf boys.
The Vatican insists Ratzinger was unaware of the Munich priest’s move to the pastoral job and has defended its handling of the Wisconsin case.
Schoenborn, a confidante of the pope’s, defended the pope against suggestions that he was behind church cover-ups, including for the late Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer. The Austrian church was rocked by allegations in 1995 that Groer molested youths at a monastery in the 1970s.
Schoenborn replaced Groer as archbishop in 1995; but not until 1998 did the Vatican order Groer to relinquish all religious duties and seek exile in Germany. He died in Austria in 2003.
At the time, the Vatican drew sharp criticism from many Austrians for taking three years to act against Groer. Disgust over how the case was handled has been cited as contributing to the exodus of disaffected Austrians from the church.
Schoenborn said Ratzinger had immediately pushed for an investigative commission when abuse allegations against Groer arose. But others in the Vatican — described by Schoenborn as the “diplomatic track” — did not let this happen.
“I can still very clearly remember the moment when Cardinal Ratzinger sadly told me that the other camp had asserted itself,” Schoenborn told ORF.
“To accuse him of being someone who covers things up — having known the pope for many years, I can say that is certainly not true.”
Benedict has publicly spoken about the scandal only in Ireland. He wrote a letter to the Irish faithful last week in which he chastised Irish bishops for leadership shortcomings and errors in judgment for failing to apply church law to stop abusive priests.
On Saturday, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, acknowledged that the way the church responds to the abuse scandal is “crucial for its moral credibility.”
He said most of the cases that have come to light recently occurred decades ago.
“But recognizing them, and making amends to the victims, is the price of re-establishing justice and ‘purifying memories’ that will let us look with renewed commitment together with humility and trust in the future,” he said in a statement on Vatican Radio.
His comments indicated that the Vatican is now looking at the scandal as a way to purify itself so that it can emerge renewed and strengthened. He pointed to the action taken by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops after the clerical abuse scandal erupted there in 2002, instituting tough norms to protect children.
The head of the German bishops’ conference has said the Vatican was compiling information from various bishops’ conferences around the world that have enacted such norms, with the possible aim of setting out new guidelines for dealing with the problem.