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Top Vatican cardinal defends pope amid scandal

VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Vatican said Saturday that recent attacks on the church over its handling of clerical sex abuse cases have been harmful, but insisted the pope's authority had not been weakened.

Instead, the Vatican spokesman said, Pope Benedict XVI's authority and the commitment of the Vatican doctrinal and disciplinary office "have been confirmed in their support and guidance to bishops to combat and root out the blight of abuse wherever it appears."

"The way in which the church deals with it is crucial for her moral credibility," said the spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, in a comment on Vatican Radio.

Revelations of the sexual abuse of children by priests at Catholic institutions have swept across Europe and into Benedict's native Germany. The pope himself has come under fire for a case dating to his tenure as archbishop of Munich and another dating to his stint as the head of the Vatican office responsible for disciplining priests.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, a top Vatican official, acknowledged in an interview published Saturday that church authorities had on occasion maintained silence over cases of sex abuse. But he defended the pope, saying Benedict "was the first one who — already as a cardinal —felt the need for new, harsher rules."

Attacks on the pope go "beyond any limit of justice and loyalty," Kasper told Corriere della Sera.

The cardinal, however, called for a cleanup and said the church must be more alert and brave in dealing with any sex abuse. He said a growing awareness of the problem makes the path of renewal "irreversible."

"We need a culture of attentiveness and courage, and a housecleaning," Kasper, also a German, said in the interview.

Until recently, Benedict had received high marks for his handling of sex abuse.

Taking a much harder stance than his predecessor, John Paul II, Benedict disciplined a senior cleric who had been championed by the Polish pontiff and defrocked others under a new policy of zero tolerance.

But reaction changed after a case that involved the Rev. Peter Hullermann, accused of abusing boys, and his transfer to the pope's former archdiocese of Munich.

While Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now the pontiff, was involved in a 1980 decision to transfer Hullermann to Munich for therapy, Ratzinger's then-deputy took responsibility for a subsequent decision to let the priest return to pastoral duties. Hullermann was convicted of sexual abuse in 1986.

However, The New York Times reported Friday that Ratzinger was copied in on a memo stating Hullermann would be returned to pastoral work within days of beginning psychiatric treatment. The archdiocese insisted Ratzinger was unaware of the decision and that any other version was "mere speculation."

Kasper said in the interview that "especially in big dioceses, I have the impression that bishops were often not informed, unfortunately." He said this needed to change, along with the process of selection at seminars.

In another case, documents show the Vatican office responsible for disciplining priests, while headed by Ratzinger, halted a church trial of a Milwaukee priest accused of molesting some 200 deaf boys from 1950-1975.

Despite the grave allegations against the Rev. Lawrence Murphy, Ratzinger's deputy, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, shut the process down after Murphy wrote Ratzinger a letter saying he had repented, was old and ailing, and that the case's statute of limitations had run out.

Bertone now serves as the Vatican's secretary of state.

The Vatican said the case only reached the Vatican in 1996, that Murphy died two years later, and that there was nothing in the church's handling of the matter that precluded any civil action from being taken against him.

The abuse scandal in dioceses, monasteries and other Catholic institutions has spread to countries including Austria, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

Still, Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, insisted that "many positive signals" had been coming from several bishops' conferences, such as the reaffirmation or updating of directives for the handling and prevention of abuse.

He said the media attacks "have undoubtedly proved harmful" but insisted that most cases under scrutiny took place years, or even decades, ago.

Lombardi pointed in particular to a recent report in the U.S. church — rocked by a massive sex abuse scandal in 2002 — which shows a decline in the number of abuse allegations.