A series of explosive child sex abuse scandals has hit Western Europe in recent months, sending the Catholic Church into damage-control mode. While such scandals have become depressingly frequent since major allegations came out in the United States in 2002, the latest charges have been particularly damaging, implicating senior members of the Vatican hierarchy, including Pope Benedict XVI himself, and coming at a time when the church is already losing popularity on its home turf.
The scandal: Serious accusations have rocked the Irish church since the U.S. scandal broke. But it was not until the middle of last year -- when a government report detailing Irish clergy child abuse was released -- that the extent of the problem was entirely clear. The report alleged 2,000 cases of abuse over a 60-year period. A second government investigation, released by the Irish government in November 2009, fanned the flames by revealing the collusion of Irish police in systematically covering up cases of child abuse by Dublin clergymen. For Ireland, this is only the latest part of the clergy abuse saga -- the Associated Press reports that since the mid-1990s there have been nearly 15,000 complaints leveled against the church -- with legal claims topping $1.5 billion.
The church's response: The archbishop of Dublin responded swiftly to the latest report, saying on Nov. 26, "No words of apology will ever be sufficient," and "The report highlights devastating failings of the past." The Irish police commissioner also expressed his regret in the police force's role. The Vatican, however, was less effective. In September 2009, a Vatican official responded to growing criticism by defending the clergy's action, citing statistics that showed only 1.5 to 5 percent of clergy have been involved in cases of child sex abuse -- a leaky argument that acknowledges sexual abuse by up to 20,000 priests worldwide.
This February, the pope finally personally addressed the issue by summoning 24 Irish bishops to the Vatican to discuss the by-then highly publicized scandal. He also vowed to pen a "clear and decisive" letter addressed to Irish Catholic constituents that would outline definitive steps the church would take to protect children from further abuse. Four bishops have resigned in the reports' wake, but others have complained of unfair treatment by the Irish press, pointing out that journalists have focused on the church even though problems of abuse are societywide.