An Austrian priest avoids mention of Pope Benedict XVI in his Masses. A Philadelphia woman stops going to confession, saying she now sees priests as more flawed than herself. British protesters call for the pontiff to resign.
As the faithful fill churches this Holy Week, many Roman Catholics around the world are finding their relationship to the church painfully tested by new revelations of clerical abuse and suggestions Pope Benedict himself may have helped cover up cases in Germany and the U.S.
There are fears that for those whose commitment is already wavering, the scandal could be the final blow, and a growing chorus is clamouring for the church to embrace full transparency, take a hard line against paedophiles, and reconsider the rule of priestly celibacy.
“There’s too many victims, and too much lying from the church about what really happened,” said Martin Sherlock, a Catholic newspaper vendor in Dublin, Ireland.
Experts say the church is facing a crisis of historic proportions.
“This is the type of problem that arises really once in a century, I think, and it might even be more significant,” said Paul Collins, an Australian church historian and former priest.
Mr. Collins, 69, said the abuse controversy was not mentioned by the priest in his own church near Canberra on Palm Sunday, but that the congregation discussed it afterwards outside.
“People are outraged really, they’re furious with the complete failure of the church’s leadership and their view would be that we are led by incompetent people,” Mr. Collins said.
That view was echoed by many Catholics interviewed around the world by The Associated Press in recent days, although the pope also had defenders.
One of them was John Ryan, a retired glue factory worker, who said he was impressed by the letter Pope Benedict wrote to the Irish faithful last week in which he chastised Irish bishops.
“I was talking to my parish priest last weekend, and we were reading the pope’s letter, and he told me: This pope is the most intelligent pope we’ve had in the last thousand years,” said Ryan, 66, after a Mass in Dublin. “I couldn’t disagree with that. I don’t really think we could do better than with Benedict. I know they’re supposed to be infallible, but I’d say most Catholics today would accept that nobody’s perfect - not even the pope.”
In staunchly Catholic Poland, the homeland of the late Pope John Paul II and a place where churches are packed even on work days, the top church authority called the pope the target of an “unprecedented media attack.”
Allegations that Pope Benedict concealed abuse “are totally groundless and it is hard to understand them in any other way than as a direct attack on the person and dignity of the pope,” Henryk Muszynski, the Primate of Poland and Archbishop of Gniezno, said on Sunday.
But across the Atlantic, Jasmine Co said her faith in the church was badly shaken.
The 56—year—old nurse, who recently moved to the U.S. from the Philippines, said she has stopped confessing her sins to priests, and is turning to God directly.
“I don’t believe in confession to the priest because I don’t know if that priest is more of a sinner than I am,” Ms. Co said after attending a Palm Sunday service in central Philadelphia.
On Sunday in London, about 50 protesters staged a demonstration calling on the pope to resign - something that hasn’t happened in 700 years.
The criticism is also coming from pulpits.
Udo Fischer, an Austrian priest known for his liberal views, avoids mentioning Pope Benedict and other church leaders by name during his Masses - at least until he sees stronger signals of remorse from the Holy See.
“We always stress that this is the church of Jesus Christ - that of the Lord Jesus and not that of the Lord Pope,” Fischer said after a Palm Sunday service in his parish in Paudorf, a village near Vienna.
Parishioners young and old squeezed into pews in Fischer’s modern and airy church clutching bunches of pussy willows blessed by the priest.
Traditionally Catholic Austria, shaken by clergy abuse claims in past years and again in recent weeks, risks a drop in already dwindling support for the church if no concrete action is taken to prevent further abuse and cover—ups, says Regina Polak of the University of Vienna’s Institute for Practical Theology.
“The situation is very fragile right now,” Polak said. “The potential for frustration is high.”
In Spain, a heavily Catholic country where secular lifestyles are eroding church attendance, a coalition of more than 100 liberal—minded lay and clergy—based groups called the Vatican’s handling of the scandal “irresponsible and insufficient,” saying it failed to “put itself firmly on the side of the victims.”
In Norway, Oslo’s Bishop Bernt Eidsvig told Catholics in a letter last week that “the culture of silence that certain bishops advised is a betrayal.”
Perhaps most ominous is the threat to the pope’s own authority.
David Gibson, author of “The Rule of Benedict,” a biography of the pope, said the criticism focusing on Pope Benedict puts the “the mystique of the papal office” in peril.
“And above all, it diminishes his credibility, his ability to convince people of his message, to have people listen to him. It distances many Catholics, I think, even further from the institutional hierarchical church,” said Mr. Gibson.
Even as Easter Week began, anxiety was heard in many places, with people struggling to draw a line between the crimes of some priests and their own deep attachment to communities and the beliefs that sustain them.
“At this point in my life I wouldn’t leave the church for somebody else’s sins,” said Linda Faust, 56, after a Mass in Greendale, Wisconsin - the state where the late Rev. Lawrence Murphy was accused of molesting some 200 boys at a school for the deaf. Pope Benedict, at the time Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, is linked to a decision in the 1990s not to defrock Rev. Murphy.
Instead, Ms. Faust said that she and her husband pray for the child victims, the abusive priests and the archbishops who let them transfer to other parishes.
A key focus for those seeking church reform is celibacy - a tradition dating to Christianity’s early days but only made mandatory in the 11th century. Both Collins in Australia and Bishop Geoffrey Siundu, a former Catholic priest in Kenya, said the rule should go.
Bishop Siundu who now heads the Ecumenical Catholic Church of Christ in Kenya, said the celibacy rule has driven 30 other ex—priests to join his church.
Kathrin Radelmayer, 24, attended Mass in Munich, where Cardinal Ratzinger’s handling of a case when he was archbishop there has been questioned. She said she was sticking with the church even though many of her friends and relatives are distancing themselves now.
“It is such a shock for the church, but the church has withstood a lot in its 2,000 years and I think that it will survive this as well,” Ms. Radelmayer said.
Marina Buendia, a 22-year-old nurse from Madrid, went to St. Peter’s Square in Rome with a friend for the Pope’s Palm Sunday Mass. She defended the church.
“The news of these cases has come to the Vatican far too late for the Vatican to be held responsible,” she said. “I think that the Vatican has accepted the problem, which is a step in the right direction. We are both very religious and feel a very strong personal bond with the pope, which would never be affected by such scandals. As young Catholics, we feel welcome and included by the church.”
At a Mass in Minneapolis, Teresa Schweitzer, a 45—year—old English teacher, said the handling of abuse cases compounds her disenchantment over other matters, including women denied leadership roles. But she drew comfort from the many Catholic priests and activists she has seen helping the poor and pursuing social justice.
“I’ve had a lot of disappointments over the years, and I’m hanging by a thread,” Ms. Schweitzer said. “I keep coming back for the community - the way we support each other in so many ways. Do you give up on that? Or do you stay in it and fight for justice? I think that’s where a lot of us are at now.”