As Pope Benedict XVI wound down his first visit to the United States in 2008, the U.S. Catholic Church’s news service noted that the pontiff had achieved his top objective for the trip by personally apologizing to Americans who had been sexually abused by priests.
The pope “brought a certain closure to the priestly sex abuse scandal that has shaken the church for more than six years,” the Catholic News Service, an arm of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, reported at the time.
In recent weeks, that scandal has been blown wide open again. This time, the Roman Catholic Church’s crisis over sex abuse charges has gone global, with allegations spreading through half a dozen countries on two continents — even as many U.S. Catholic dioceses continue to face litigation over alleged sexual abuse by priests.
Allegations of church-based sex abuse are mounting across Europe, including in Austria, Germany, Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland. New abuse allegations have surfaced in Brazil, home of the world’s largest Catholic population, thanks to a recent TV report that included a video purportedly showing a priest having sex with a 19-year-old altar boy.
Ireland, meanwhile, continues to wrestle with the fallout from years of revelations about abusive priests. It wasn’t until this week that Ireland’s top Catholic Cardinal acknowledged the church’s response to the abuse had been “hopelessly inadequate.” A letter from the pope responding to the Irish abuse is expected Saturday.
Video: Irish Catholics divided
Video: Bishops speak on sex scandal
When the American church abuse crisis emerged eight years ago in Boston, Massachusetts, “there was a tendency to see it as an American problem,” says John Allen, Vatican analyst and senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. “Now we have obvious confirmation that this is a global crisis. Anywhere there is a substantial Catholic population there is the potential for this type of scandal.”
And while few Vatican watchers expect Benedict to step down over the growing crisis, charges of abuse in his native Germany are bringing the scandal closer to this pope than to any of his predecessors. “The scandals threaten his reputation in terms of how he governs the church,” says Allen. “But there’s also a threat to his personal reputation and moral authority.”
For the broader Roman Catholic Church, the crisis threatens to erode membership in Europe’s remaining Catholic strongholds and to change secular Europe’s posture toward the church from shrugging toleration to outright hostility.
But church experts say the crisis is likely to have far less impact in parts of the world where Catholicism is growing fastest, like Africa and Southeast Asia.
For Benedict, the sexual abuse revelations in Germany, where lawyers say that more than 300 cases of alleged abuse have emerged — mostly since January — are the most ominous. The archdiocese of Munich recently revealed that it had allowed a priest suspected of abuse to continue pastoring there in the early 1980s, when the pope — then known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — was archbishop. That priest was later convicted of abuse.
The Munich archdiocese’s number two official from the time has claimed full responsibility for the episode and no other cases that could implicate the pope have emerged. “If it’s one case, it’s embarrassing but survivable,” says Allen. “If it becomes five or ten, a pattern emerges and it becomes something more serious.”
Those who’ve watched Catholic abuse scandals unfold elsewhere say there’s a high likelihood of more allegations in Germany and other countries where news of the scandal recently broke. “It starts with the victims, then the media pick it up and once the dam is broken, new revelations and victims pour out,” said David Gibson, a Vatican expert who has written a biography of Benedict.
“Once victims are emboldened to come forward, it emboldens prosecutors and government officials to undertake investigations they may not have before out of fear of offending the church,” he said.
That was the pattern in the United States after allegations surfaced in the Boston archdiocese in 2002. Since then, the U.S. Catholic church has paid $2.5 billion toward sexual abuse victims.
Besides setting off a chain reaction of American victims coming forward — partially through the advent of victims’ advocacy groups — the U.S. church scandal represented a turning point in the news media rigorously investigating allegations of church abuse.
Those same elements combined to throw a light on major church abuse scandals in England and Australia in the years since. In Ireland, allegations of abuse culminated in last year’s release of a government-commissioned report that found the Archdiocese of Dublin and other Catholic authorities covered up widespread child abuse by priests from 1975 to 2004.
In traditionally Catholic Ireland, the pews were already emptying before the sex abuse scandal broke. “But places like southern Germany and Austria and Poland are still very Catholic,” says Gibson. The accumulating abuse allegations “will erode church participation there while accelerating the pace of secularization in places like France and England.”
The growing scandals might also curb the church’s enduring role in European politics and public life. “When the Catholic Church comes out against biotechnology there will be Europeans that say, ‘Why should we listen to you — you put up with pedophile priests,'” said Philip Jenkins, a religion professor at Pennsylvania State University.
In Brazil, where a handful of abuse allegations against priests have recently surfaced, the Catholic Church is already losing market share to Pentecostal and evangelical churches. Those churches may subtly seize on abuse allegations as part of their broader appeals to those disillusioned by the Catholic Church’s top-down structure.
But in regions like Africa, which has seen its Catholic population grow from 2 million in 1900 to 150 million today, the new allegations are likely to generate relatively little distress. Nigeria is now home to the world’s largest Catholic seminary, while Europe and the U.S. now depend on wider Africa to supply their priests.
“The joke in Africa is that the problem with the Vatican is that it’s 2,000 miles too far north,” says Jenkins. “So these latest allegations won’t cause mass defections.”