VATICAN CITY – The Vatican on Sunday denied that its celibacy requirement for priests was the root cause of the clerical sex abuse scandal convulsing the church in Europe and again defended the pope's handling of the crisis.
Suggestions that the celibacy rule was somehow responsible for the "deviant behavior" of sexually abusive priests have swirled in recent days, with opinion pieces in German newspapers blaming it for fueling abuse and even Italian commentators questioning the rule.
Much of the furor was spurred by comments from one of the pope's closest advisers, Vienna archbishop Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, who called this week for an honest examination of issues like celibacy and priestly education to root out the origins of sex abuse.
"Part of it is the question of celibacy, as well as the subject of character development. And part of it is a large portion of honesty, in the church but also in society," he wrote in the online edition of his diocesan newsletter.
His office quickly stressed that Schoenborn wasn't calling into question priestly celibacy, which just this week Pope Benedict XVI reaffirmed for priests as an "expression of the gift of oneself to God and others."
But Schoenborn has in the past shown himself receptive to arguments that a celibate priesthood is increasingly problematic for the church, primarily because it limits the number of men who seek ordination.
Last June, Schoenborn personally presented the Vatican with a lay initiative signed by prominent Australian Catholics calling for the celibacy rule to be abolished and for married men to be allowed to become priests.
In the days following Schoenborn's editorial this week, several prominent prelates — in Germany and at the Vatican — shot down any suggestion that the celibacy rule had anything to do with the scandal, a point echoed Sunday by the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano.
"It's been established that there's no link," said the article by Bishop Giuseppe Versaldi, an emeritus professor of canon law and psychology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.
"First off, it's known that sexual abuse of minors is more widespread among lay people and those who are married than in the celibate priesthood," he wrote. "Secondly, research has shown that priests guilty of abuse had long before stopped observing celibacy."
The article — subtitled "The rigor of Benedict against the filth in the Church" — also defended Benedict as a "vigilant shepherd of his flock" in confronting the crisis decisively early on and taking charge of abuse cases himself as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The Vatican has been on the defensive ever since the first of some 170 former students from Catholic schools in Benedict's native Germany came forward with claims of physical and sexual abuse, including at a boys choir once led by the pope's brother.
Since then, claims have spread to the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland — all while the pope was preparing a letter for Irish Catholics in response to the decades of systematic abuse in church-run schools, orphanages and other institutions in that predominantly Roman Catholic nation.
The crisis reached the pope himself on Friday. The Munich archdiocese reported that when he was Munich Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger, he had approved therapy for a priest suspected of abuse in the 1980s. The priest was then transferred to another location, where he was convicted of abusing minors.
The Vatican and the archdiocese stressed that Ratzinger didn't authorize the transfer and that an underling had taken "full responsibility."
Benedict didn't refer at all to the scandal Sunday during his traditional noon blessing. He spoke in general terms about the parable of the prodigal son and assured the faithful — in German — that God loves everyone "even when they feel estranged" and that God created forgiveness.
Later Sunday, Benedict was to visit the Lutheran church in Rome to participate in a previously scheduled ecumenical service.
The scandal has clearly shaken the Vatican, which has gone on a full-court media offensive to stem the damage. In an extraordinary move, the Vatican's chief prosecutor for sex crimes, Monsignor Charles Scicluna, detailed for the first time statistics on the number and types of cases of abuse that had been reviewed since the Vatican in 2001 ordered diocese to forward cases of suspected abusive priests to Rome to determine whether church trials were warranted.
The Vatican has said such church trials, while secret, in no way precluded bishops from reporting abuse to civil authorities.
In the interview with the newspaper of the Italian bishops' conference, Scicluna suggested that the statute of limitations for church tribunals be removed altogether for such crimes. Currently the statute is 10 years after the alleged victim reaches 18.
"Practice has shown that the limit of 10 years is not enough in this kind of case," he said, noting that the Vatican in 2002 allowed exceptions to the statute on a case-by-case basis, and that such exemptions are generally granted.