Child abuse is a crime; cover-up is a disgrace

In recent weeks, just about every day, you read an article or a column or watch a news report about the growing number of allegations of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests around the world. The emphasis of the reporting this time has been on the cover-up of pedophile priests by the Vatican, and particularly the pope.

One headline that caught my attention was the one that read: "Vatican blasts anti-Catholic hate campaign." Several high-level Vatican officials have come out in defense of Pope Benedict XVI, claiming, among other things, that he is being targeted because of his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. It seems like the church is now in a campaign of its own to cover up the cover-up.

With all the respect the church's hierarchy deserves, it is appalling that those leaders would want the world to ignore the fact that the Vatican has known for decades about thousands of sexual-abuse cases by priests. We deserve to know why the hierarchy did not put a stop to it and why it was so clearly covered up.

Among those who came out to defend the pope was the Vatican's dean of the College of Cardinals. Cardinal Angelo Sodano was quoted in the Vatican's newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, as saying that the church is suffering because of pedophile priests, but added that "Benedict XVI has apologized several times."

"It is not Christ's fault that Judas betrayed him. It is not a bishop's fault if one of his priests is stained by grave wrongdoing. And certainly the pontiff is not responsible," said Sodano.

Yes, Benedict XVI has apologized for the sexual abuse committed by Catholic priests, and it is commendable that he met personally with victims in the beginning of his papacy.

But has he apologized for not publicly denouncing the abuse? Has he apologized for not trying to put a stop to it and bring the perpetrators of the crime to justice when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith?

What we do know is that in many instances, the solution to abuse cases was to transfer the abuser to another parish, out of the country if necessary. Not only did that not stop the abuse from occurring, it left past crimes unpunished.

I've covered this story extensively throughout the years. Back in 2002, we visited the Congregation of the Servants of the Paraclete in New Mexico, where since the 1960s the church has sent priests believed to have sexual addiction. After they received therapy and counseling and were considered rehabilitated, they were sent out to serve in parishes in different communities. That's how New Mexico became the state with the most cases of clergy sex abuse against minors in the United States.

It is not the bishop's fault if one of his priests is stained by grave wrongdoing, as Cardinal Sodano says. But it is his fault if he fixes the problem by sending him to another place where he can continue to abuse children.

"The pontiff is not responsible," Sodano claims.

As head of the church, the pope should take responsibility for all that goes on, good or bad. But more importantly, Benedict XVI should respond for his actions and inactions during the more than two decades that he headed the department responsible for promoting morals and matters of faith. It was, in fact, Cardinal Ratzinger who in 2001 ratified and updated a Vatican document from the '60s that instructed bishops on how to deal with "Crimes of Solicitation." The new version gave strict orders to have child-abuse cases dealt with directly by the Vatican hierarchy.

The secret Vatican edict, according to one news account, ordered bishops not to report cases of child abuse by clergy to legal authorities, and asked them to discourage victims of abuse, witnesses and perpetrators from talking about it and to threaten them with excommunication if they did.

No, Cardinal Sodano, this is not an anti-Catholic hate campaign. Asking the Vatican to tell the truth, to stop the cover-up and allow justice to be served, is not church-bashing. Sexually abusing a child is not just "grave wrongdoing," it is not just a mortal sin or a moral violation that should be dealt with behind closed doors in canon mock trials. Child abuse is a crime; when committed by a priest, it's a shame; when covered up at the highest levels of the church, it is a disgrace.