Further revelations of the Vatican’s inaction to address pedophilia may tarnish not only Pope Benedict’s reputation, but that of Pope Paul VI.
According to a newly released letter, Pope Paul VI and the Vatican knew about clergy abuse of children almost 50 years ago.
The 1963 letter is from the head of a Roman Catholic order dedicated to the treatment of priests who had committed pedophilia. In it, he tells Pope Paul that he recommends removing the priests from active ministry.
The letter was released in Los Angeles by attorneys for California clergy abuse victims who obtained the document during litigation.
It summarizes the Rev. Gerald M.C. Fitzgerald’s thoughts on problem priests and appears to have been requested by Pope Paul after Fitzgerald’s 1963 visit to the Vatican.
Tod Tamberg, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, came to the Vatican’s defense, saying it was unlikely Pope Paul ever saw the letter.
“The fact of the matter is, the prevailing ideas at the time about how to deal with abusive behavior were not adequate,” Tamberg said. “Clearly, society and the church have evolved new understandings of what causes sexually abusive behavior and how to deal with it.”
Tony DeMarco, an attorney for clergy abuse victims in Los Angeles, disagreed. He thinks the letter shows clearly that the Vatican knew about priest abuses decades ago and didn’t do anything about it.
He points out that the priest even suggests removing the pedophile priests from ministry entirely instead of shuffling them from parish to parish, which the Vatican has been criticized for since the reports of clergy abuse began.
“It shows without a shadow of a doubt that … how pervasive the problem was was communicated to the pope. He was able to share with him their knowledge of how pervasive this problems was, how destructive this problem was,” DeMarco said.
On Wednesday, Pope Benedict XVI said he believed the scandal was a “test for him and the church.” Several days earlier, he said he would not be “intimidated” by all the outrage over the clergy abuse, dismissing the claims as “petty gossip.”
Bishops across Europe have begun taking action on their own.
Swiss bishops encouraged victims to file criminal complaints. German bishops have opened a hot line for victims. Danish bishops launched an inquiry into decades-old claims. Austria’s senior cleric, Cardinal Christophe Schoenborn, admitted church guilt as he presided over a service for victims billed as a sign of repentance.
“Thank you for breaking your silence,” Schoenborn told the victims. “A lot has been broken open. There is less looking away. But there is still a lot to do.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.