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Hard line on paedophile priests was long in coming: Analysts

After decades of strict secrecy over paedophile priests, the Roman Catholic Church is finally tackling the problem head-on, with much credit due to Pope Benedict XVI, analysts say.

world Updated: Mar 19, 2010 08:19 IST

After decades of strict secrecy over paedophile priests, the Roman Catholic Church is finally tackling the problem head-on, with much credit due to Pope Benedict XVI, analysts say.

"Over the course of the last 15 years, there has been a sort of Copernican revolution within the Church," said Marco Politi, Vatican analyst at the leftist Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano.

"For centuries, the Church hid the facts because its main goal was to defend the institution's prestige. Today, the pope himself encourages speaking out," Politi told AFP.

Another Vatican watcher, John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, noted that the predator priest scandals began to emerge towards the end of the reign of John Paul II, Benedict's predecessor who died in 2005.

"But Benedict is the crisis pope: he is the first to impose discipline," Allen said. "He can be criticised for the way he governs the Church, but when it comes to sexual abuse, he took the matter forcefully into his own hands," he added.

The scandals have snowballed, especially in Europe, since Irish Catholics were rocked in November by revelations of widespread sexual abuse of children by priests and teachers and systematic cover-ups by the Church hierarchy.

The Church in the pope's native Germany could also be faulted for a hush-hush approach to the scourge, and Benedict himself was caught up in the maelstrom of scandals that has swept two-thirds of the country's 27 dioceses since revelations first emerged in late January.

Then Archbishop of Munich Joseph Ratzinger in 1980 approved the transfer of a suspected paedophile priest to his diocese to undergo therapy; the priest went on to abuse and was eventually convicted and jailed.

Two decades later, Ratzinger, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -- the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog -- initiated a decree issued by Pope John Paul II in 2001 ordering bishops to report abuse cases to the Vatican and remove abusers from contact with youth.

Further along the road to transparency, as pontiff, Benedict has continually spoken out and apologised for the "heinous crime," meeting victims in the United States and in Australia.

He has met twice with the top leadership of the Irish Catholic Church, rebuking them over the scandal and urging them to restore the Church's "spiritual and moral credibility.

Benedict will issue an unprecedented pastoral letter to Irish Catholics on the subject on Saturday.

"The letter to the Irish is the first official document by a pope on the phenomenon of paedophilia in contemporary society," Politi said.

But he warned: "the credibility of the document cannot be ensured, unless there is an opening of inquiries within the dioceses to discover if there are other victims that have not been heard."