By Silvia Aloisi
ROME (Reuters) – The powerful head of Italy’s bishops, responding to mounting pressure on the Vatican, said on Sunday those in the Church who mishandled, minimized and covered up sexual abuse of children should be dismissed.
Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco said in a newspaper interview that pedophilia was a “heinous crime” and even more serious when committed by members of the Church.
“Toward each of the people violated, and their families, I feel shame and remorse, particularly in those cases when they were not listened to by those who should have intervened in a timely manner,” he told Il Sole 24 Ore daily.
“Proven cases of mismanagement, underestimation of the facts, if not outright cover-up, will have to be rigorously prosecuted within and outside the Church and, as has already happened in some cases, will have to result in the removal and dismissal of the people involved.”
The Vatican has been battling growing allegations that it mishandled and covered up past cases of abuse of children by priests in the United States and several European countries because it was concerned more with the image of the Church than with the victims.
FOCUS ON THE POPE
The latest accusations have focused on the role of Pope Benedict when he was an archbishop in his native Germany and the Vatican’s top doctrinal official before his election in 2005.
Documents given to the media on Friday by lawyers representing abuse victims in the United States allege that he resisted pleas to defrock a California priest who had sexually abused children.
A Vatican lawyer denied on Saturday that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had tried to impede the defrocking of the priest and accused the media of a rush to judgment.
Bagnasco defended the pope from what he called “gratuitous and defamatory” accusations, saying he had long acted for the Church “to examine itself and purify itself from those single individuals who have painfully damaged its image and credibility.”
“But this vigorous clean-up operation — which obviously includes a loyal and correct cooperation with civil authorities — cannot erase the suffering and the disillusionment of the victims,” he added.
The abuse scandal has rocked the Catholic Church in several European countries, including Ireland — where a government report last year said the Church had “obsessively” hidden child abuse for 30 years — and the Pope’s native Germany.
An opinion poll to be published in Germany’s Focus magazine on Monday showed a majority of Germans have no confidence in the Church and a quarter of the country’s Catholics are considering quitting it in the wake of the scandal.
In a letter to the Irish people last month, Pope Benedict apologized to abuse victims in the overwhelmingly Catholic country and ordered an official inquiry.
But he has made no direct public reference since then to the spreading scandal and did not mention it in his weekly blessing on Sunday.
(Editing by Tim Pearce)