That the Roman Catholic Church has been delinquent in handling widespread sexual abuse of members of its flock by some or several of its priests has become evident as it faces a new wave of paedophiliac scandals. An institution so deeply bound with the life of societies in many parts of the world suddenly faces the prospect of eroding credibility and moral authority, leaving many ordinary Catholics demoralised and confused. This has the makings of a crisis of historic proportions for the Church. No more can it afford to be in denial of what the Pope unhappily termed “the petty gossip of dominant opinion” — as the scandals overwhelm it in much of its heartland in Europe, besides the United States where 11,750 allegations of child abuse have so far featured in actions settled by individual archdioceses. Predominantly Catholic Ireland has been rocked by three judicial reports in the past five years detailing child sex abuse and cover-ups going as far back as the 1930s. The finding of Judge Murphy's Commission in Ireland was not merely that sexual abuse was “endemic” in boys' institutions but also that the Church hierarchy protected the perpetrators. Shockingly, despite knowledge of their propensity to reoffend, these paedophiles in priestly garb were allowed to take up new positions involving children after the victims were sworn to secrecy.

A key focus for those seeking Church reform is priestly celibacy, a tradition dating to Christianity's early days but made mandatory only in the 11th century. The debate over whether the rule should go has come into sharper relief than ever before. As Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, leader of Germany's Roman Catholic bishops, said in a message to mark Good Friday, the Church may be in dire need of “a new departure.” Transparency should be a guiding principle for that process. The Church must acknowledge and make amends for even decades-old cases. While Pope Benedict XVI has continually spoken out and apologised for the “heinous crimes” — he also met victims in the U.S. and in Australia — he himself has come under pressure. This followed allegations published in The New York Times that, as Archbishop of Munich and later as the chief enforcer for 24 years (until 2005) of Catholic doctrine and morals and head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Ratzinger might well have failed to act against offending priests. It seems unlikely that the Holy See will now be able to overlook international law, which counts egregious sexual abuse of children as a crime against humanity. To treat the assaults as “sins” subject only to action by religious bodies looks increasingly indefensible.

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