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SANTIAGO, Apr 2 2010 (IPS) - As Catholic Church authorities in Latin America close ranks around the Vatican, whose credibility has been undermined by countless cases of child sex abuse committed by priests, other sectors are calling for major structural reforms in the institution.
In his view, “attempts have been made to deny any link between the canonical rule of celibacy and the abuse of minors, but these carry no credibility in public opinion.”
“For decades these abuses, and general debate about Catholic sexual morality, have been treated as taboo. Consequently, cases of abuse have been covered up with absolute silence, and those accused have simply been transferred,” he said.
In a pastoral letter to Irish Catholics Mar. 20, Pope Benedict XVI asked for forgiveness for thousands of child sex crimes committed by Irish priests between 1930 and 1990, and announced an investigation of seminaries and certain dioceses.
But the pope’s letter, which was global in nature because of the extent of the problem, did not propose specific punishments for bishops accused of covering up these crimes, nor did it admit the Vatican’s responsibility.
Meanwhile, the Vatican is investigating the powerful Legion of Christ, a Catholic order founded in 1941 by the late Mexican priest Marcial Maciel (1920-2008), who was accused of sexually abusing seminary students and two of his own sons, as well as secretly fathering at least six children and having long-term relationships with two women.
So far Catholic Church authorities in Brazil, Chile and Paraguay have defended the pope’s actions. Latin America is the region with the largest number of Catholics.
On Wednesday a letter to the pope from Paraguayan bishops expressed their “support, communion and solidarity in the face of media attacks.”
The same day, in a national Catholic media broadcast, the president of the Brazilian Conference of Bishops, Archbishop Geraldo Lyrio Rocha, expressed his support for Pope Benedict and regretted that “the dissemination of news about those crimes, which are inexcusable, should have turned into a campaign of defamation against the Church and the pope.”
According to Rocha, “the pope publicly admitted the errors of members of the Catholic Church, and having asked forgiveness for their practices, he has not deserved this treatment, which also wounds many people.”
Previously, the Archbishop of São Paulo, Odilio Pedro Scherer, called in an interview to “separate the wheat from the chaff,” as the sex crimes were committed “by some people, not by everyone.” It is not fair to blame the whole Church, he said.
In Argentina, where five priests and an archbishop have been convicted of sex crimes since 2003, and in Venezuela, the response to the crisis has been silence.
“On sexual abuse, rather than look for external causes, the Church should urgently look at its own structures,” the international Catholic reform movement We Are Church (Somos Iglesia) advised in a Mar. 24 communiqué.
This message has the support of the Latin American members of the movement, Enrique Orellana of Somos Iglesia-Chile told IPS.
A clear statement is needed about the responsibilities of the Church leadership and the opportunity for a new start, Ramis said.
In Mexico, Pope Benedict should dismiss Archbishop Norberto Rivera, and the Church in that country should ask forgiveness and create a reparations mechanism for victims, U.S. journalist Jason Berry, who has investigated the phenomenon in that country, told IPS.
“The ideal solution would be for the Church to say ‘here is this sum of money, and we will create a mechanism to make reparations to all victims of abuse,'” said Berry, who co-authored the 2004 book “Vows of Silence”, exposing paedophile priests, with his colleague Gerald Renner (1932-2007).
Up to now, Mexican Church authorities have merely asked for prayers for the forgiveness of the accused, and argued that there is more paedophilia outside the clergy than within it.
“The Church in Latin America cannot isolate itself from this debate and from the worldwide questioning of the practices of the Church hierarchy,” Ramis emphasised.
In his opinion, “it’s important that lay people insist that the Church should be a place where all the rights that any institution should guarantee to its members are respected.”
Examples of these are the rights to information about decisions, to freedom of expression, to be consulted, to hold those in authority accountable, to non-discrimination and to appeal administrative resolutions.
Brazilian sociologist Luzia Ribeiro, a consultant with the Institute of Religious Studies (ISER), said self-criticism is essential, in order to acknowledge the crimes, ask forgiveness and punish those guilty of paedophilia with ecclesiastical as well as civil penalties.
As in any crisis, there is opportunity for change, for an “honest and transparent attitude which refuses to omit or cover up,” said the expert on religion. “I believe the first step has been taken,” she told IPS.
According to the Pontifical Yearbook 2010, published in February, there were nearly 1.2 billion baptised Catholics in 2008. The Vatican has recognised that Catholicism is no longer the largest world religion, having been overtaken by Islam.
*With additional reporting by Marcela Valente (Argentina), Humberto Márquez (Venezuela), Emilio Godoy (Mexico) and Fabiana Frayssinet (Brazil).
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