Pope urges faithful to beg forgiveness for their sins; German bishop admits church coverups

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday urged Catholics to refrain from judging sinners a day after he rebuked Irish bishops for their handling of a half-century of sexual abuse of minors by clergy.

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday urged Catholics to refrain from judging sinners a day after he rebuked Irish bishops for their handling of a half-century of sexual abuse of minors by clergy.

The pontiff didn’t mention his letter chastising Ireland’s church hierarchy as he made his weekly appearance Sunday from his studio window overlooking St. Peter’s Square. He cited the Gospel passage about Jesus’ inviting those without sin to cast the first stone toward an adulterer.

“While acknowledging her sin, he does not condemn her, but urges her to sin no more,” Benedict told English-speaking pilgrims in the square. “Trusting in his great mercy toward us, we humbly beg his forgiveness for our own failings, and we ask for the strength to grow in his holiness.”

In Germany meanwhile, the news magazine Focus quoted the head of the German Bishops Conference on Sunday as acknowledging that Roman Catholic church consciously covered up cases of sexual abuse.

Archbishop Robert Zollitsch of Freiburg said while most cases happened outside the church, “assaults that took place in such numbers within our institutions shame and frighten me.”

“Every single case darkens the face of the entire church,” he said.

On Saturday, Zollitsch apologized personally for a sexual abuse coverup that happened twenty years ago in a Black Forest community while he was in charge of human resources at the Freiburg diocese.

In the missive made public Saturday by the Vatican, Benedict said Irish bishops made grave errors of judgment about the abuse. But he didn’t blame Vatican policies that kept the abuse secret for making the situation worse, as victims in Ireland, the United States and elsewhere have claimed. He also issued no punishment for derelict Irish bishops.

The pope said Jesus taught people to “not judge and not condemn one’s neighbour. Let us learn to be intransigent toward sin — starting with our own (sin) — and indulgent with people.”

Abuse scandals involving Catholic dioceses, monasteries and other institutions — including a Regensburg, Germany, boys choir long led by the pope’s brother — have been exploding across Europe. Besides the pope’s homeland of Germany, where Benedict once was the archbishop of Munich, other nations such as Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Italy have seen victims come forward recently with allegations of abuse as well as coverups.

Underlings in the Munich archdiocese have sought to spare the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — who became Pope Benedict in 2005 — of any responsibility for the sex abuse scandal. Lower-ranking prelates have shouldered the blame for the poor handling of cases, including decisions to allow molesters to continue to have contact with children.

In Switzerland, Martin Werlin, abbot of the Benedictine Abbey at Einsiedeln, criticized the pope and other bishops for their reaction to the scandal. “I fear that the church leadership in Rome fails to take the situation seriously enough,” he was quoted as saying by the weekly newspaper SonntagsBlick.

Werlen urged the creation of a central register at the Vatican for pedophile priests and other men in the church guilty of child abuse “because it is clear that moves (of priests) can take place from one country to another.”

In many of the scandals, bishops have been accused by victims of having shuffled around molester priests after complaints were lodged.

For years now, Catholic churches in the United States, Australia and Canada have grappled with sexual abuse cases, coverups by hierarchy and huge financial payments to victims.

In his letter to the Irish faithful, Benedict apologized to victims but cited no specific punishments to bishops. Probes sponsored by the Irish government accused the bishops of covering up abuse of thousands of children in parishes, orphanages, workhouses and other church-run institutions from the 1930s to the 1990s.

A top Vatican official on Sunday brushed off those who insist the Holy See take some blame.

Critics, including victims advocacy groups, point to a 2001 policy, directed by then-Cardinal Ratzinger at the Vatican, which cloaked church handling of cases in secrecy. That in many instances effectively granted impunity to child molesters.

Monsignor Rino Fisichella, rector of a pontifical university in Rome, contended the pope’s letter to Irish faithful signalled a “decisive” break with the past.

“The pope uses very harsh words toward those who betrayed their vocation and just as harsh words toward those who maintained silence and hid crimes,” he told the Avvenire daily.

In Regensburg, Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Mueller likened media coverage of the abuse scandal in the Catholic church to the Nazis’ hostility toward the Catholics, Bayerischer Rundfunk radio reported Sunday.

Separately, in a letter to the community, Mueller wrote that “those who want to discredit the reputation of the Catholic church by any price have chosen the Regensburger Domspatzen as their victims.”

Mueller was referring to the choir rocked by a physical abuse scandal in recent weeks. The choir was run by the pope’s brother, the Rev. Georg Ratzinger, for 30 years.

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