Sexual misconduct by priests in Europe

By Sylvia Poggioli
National Public Radio
Morning Edition
April 22, 2002


While the Roman Catholic Church in the United States has received more attention, sexual misconduct by priests also is a problem in Europe. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports.


As the US crisis grew, Vatican officials appear to pin the blame on what many of them view as a licentious American culture that had tainted some members of the local Catholic Church, but pedophilia is also rocking the Catholic Church in Ireland.

(Soundbite of church bell and music)

Unidentified Man: I'm going to...

Unidentified Woman: ...just wanted to know, why didn't you stop Sean Fortune...

Unidentified Man: I...

Unidentified Woman: ...abusing young boys?

(Soundbite of church bell)

POGGIOLI: A BBC documentary, aired in Ireland last month, provided harrowing details of years of molestation of young boys by Father Sean Fortune. The priest committed suicide in 1999, just before he was to go on trial. Two weeks after the broadcast, Bishop Brendan Oliver Comiskey stepped down, acknowledging he hadn't done enough to stop priests in his diocese from sexually abusing children.

Author Mary Raftery says the broadcast was a watershed in a country where everyone secretly knew what was going on.

Ms. MARY RAFTERY (Author, "Suffer the Little Children"): I don't know if anybody thought that this would ever happen in Ireland; that people would be asking bishops, archbishops, cardinals these kinds of questions and that they would feel they had to answer them.

POGGIOLI: Mary Raftery has written a book, "Suffer the Little Children," about decades of physical and sexual abuse of children in special Irish schools run by Catholic religious orders on behalf of the state. Three thousand people have already filed allegations of having been subjected to rapes and beatings. In January, 18 religious orders agreed to compensate the victims with more than $100 million, and the sum could reach $500 million.

Ireland is not the only solidly Catholic country in Europe shaken by pedophile priests. In Poland, the Catholic Church has, for centuries, been a bulwark of national identity, but now the moral authority of this key institution in the pope's homeland is being challenged. Just before Easter, Poznan Archbishop Julius Paetz stepped down over allegations he had sexually abused young seminarians. His resignation stemmed from a protest launched by priests, who accused Paetz of paying night visits to the lodgings of seminarians using an underground tunnel. The priests had written to the Vatican, but Polish church officials did not intervene. The scandal became public in February when the allegations against Paetz were reported by a highly respected national newspaper.

Marik Jeunkovski(ph), professor of sociology at Poznan University, says the Paetz case has shaken the Polish church hierarchy.

Professor MARK JEUNKOVSKI (Poznan University): This case provoked many internal tensions within the church itself. I watched some discussion from TV. For instance, some priests were much more outspoken--they're the laymen, in fact--condemning the kind of behavior. For some priests, it was a real act of courage.

POGGIOLI: Jeunkovski says Polish public opinion has been stunned by the church's abuse of power. Nevertheless, the institution continues to instill reverence and awe. No victim of sex abuse by priests has thus far filed legal charges or spoken publicly.

There was no such reticence among Catholic faithful in Austria over a pedophilia scandal. In 1995, a grassroots protest movement led to the resignation of the archbishop of Vienna, primate of Austria, Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, over allegations he had abused teen-aged boys. Austrian Catholics were so angry at the cardinal's haughty behavior and the Vatican's silence that more than half a million people signed a petition. Besides Groer's resignation, the movement, which came to be known as We Are Church, demanded that priestly celibacy be optional, that women be ordained priests and that laypeople have a say in the selection of their bishops.

Hubert Feichtlbauer, one of the movement founders, denounces what he calls the Catholic Church's old-boys-club mentality.

Mr. HUBERT FEICHTLBAUER (We Are Church): Certainly, ordained priests in the Catholic Church and bishops don't say publicly anything against their own peers. This cover-up, this attitude of not harming the interests of your own club, that is the worst thing, in the opinion of many of us.

POGGIOLI: But in some European countries, church officials are beginning to pay for cover-ups. In France, where nearly 30 priests have been convicted of pedophilia over the last decade, a bishop was convicted and given a three-month suspended sentence last year for protecting a pedophile priest, the first such conviction worldwide.

European as well as American Catholics have high expectations for tomorrow's Vatican meeting. They hope the Holy See and the pontiff will move beyond hand-wringing over the horror of pedophilia and tackle the issue of how to deal with criminal behavior by some members of the clergy. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.










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