Faced with growing anger in Germany over the Church's continued silence over allegations of child sex abuse by paedophile priests, the Vatican reacted on Monday for the first time, saying Pope Benedict XVI will speak with a “clear and decisive voice” when he issues a pontifical letter later this week.

The Pope is expected to release his letter soon in response to decades of systematic abuse in church-run schools and other institutions in Ireland, a predominantly Roman Catholic country. The abuse scandal has since spread to other European countries, including The Netherlands, Austria and most significantly Germany, the Pope's homeland, where as many as 170 people have broken their silence to complain.

Zero-tolerance

A top Vatican official, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, told an Italian newspaper that the zero-tolerance policy that Pope Benedict wanted to implement was a “moral obligation”.

Archbishop Fisichella was quoted as saying on Monday measures introduced in the U.S. church, similarly rocked by an abuse scandal years ago, are making a difference. The church in the U.S. paid out as much as $2.5 billion in compensation to victims.

Though it will be difficult for victims to obtain such large sums in Europe because of a more restrictive legal set-up or to initiate any legal proceedings against the erring priests because of a statute of limitations, the scandal, which is gathering momentum, is likely to cause much greater damage in Europe. In several countries in Europe, including France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Poland, Croatia, Ireland, Austria, Hungary and Slovakia, Catholicism is practised by the majority while in other major countries such as Germany and The Netherlands, Catholics account for at least a third of the population.

The scandal “affects people, whether they are religious or not,” said Dirk Taenzler, head of the Federation of German Catholic Youth (BDKJ), in the Berliner Zeitung daily. “The Holy Father should make a statement about this.” He added that the German Catholic Church, which has been hit by allegations of child sex abuse dating back decades on an almost daily basis in recent weeks, was in the midst of one of its “biggest identity crises since 1945”.

Christian Weisner from the German chapter of reform movement We Are Church said meanwhile the Pope “has not yet realised the full extent of the unease” caused.

The recent statement from the Vatican alleging a campaign to target the Pope “is the worst possible communication strategy thinkable,” Mr. Weisner told the Munich regional daily TZ. “Many Catholics who are faithful to the Church regret the fact that Benedict XVI has failed to express a single word of sympathy,” Mr. Weisner added.

Blame on ban

Many media commentators and some liberal Catholics, such as Swiss theologian Hans Kueng, have blamed the marriage ban and strict celibacy rules for the recent scandals and called for the rule from the 12th century to be scrapped.

“Times have changed, and society too, and the Church will have to consider how this type of life can be maintained or what it has to change,” said Salzburg Archbishop Alois Kothgasser on Austria's ORF television.

In a diocesan newsletter, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn of Vienna said the Church had to ask difficult questions. “That includes the issue of celibacy and the personal development” of priests, he wrote.

Though none of the prelates advocated putting an end to celibacy, the Pope, known for his conservative views, has stubbornly refused to consider these suggestions.

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