But this isn't about what goes on in Britain. Benedict XVI leads a Church of 1.2 billion souls that covers the globe. The real question needs to be where, in this highly centralised, bureaucratic multinational, is the directive from the Pope ordering that there must be similar sets of procedures in every country where the Church operates?
No such ruling has been issued by him in his 18 months in office. As a result, while in the developed world priestly abuse of children is now being effectively tackled following numerous high-profile cases, in the developing world perverted clerics are still being moved from parish to parish by their bishops once complaints about their conduct are made by distraught parents.
One grandmother in central Brazil claimed on Panorama that her grandson was abused for more than five years by a priest. He seemed a kindly figure who had offered the boy guitar lessons. But the Catholic Church apparently knew he had already been forced out of four parishes in Sao Paulo because he was a suspected paedophile and that the police wanted to arrest him. The Catholic Church continues to operate as if it is a law unto itself.
Benedict's failure to give proper weight to this issue goes back a long way. When the first allegations about an official cover-up of widespread abuse of youngsters by priests in the Boston archdiocese in the United States began to appear in 2002, the then Cardinal Ratzinger was put in charge of handling the matter by an ailing John Paul II. The future Pope's first public reaction was to blame the whole thing on a planned campaign by the press.
Then he went on to claim that "the percentages of these offences among priests is not higher than in other categories, and perhaps even lower". Priests, he said, were less likely to be abusers than the rest of the male population. Many authoritative studies show the opposite. One commissioned from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York by the American Catholic bishops put the number of abusers at between 2.5 per cent and 4.3 per cent among priests, compared with about one per cent in the general population.
However, by Easter 2005, standing in for a by now gravely ill John Paul II at his annual Good Friday talk, Cardinal Ratzinger had apparently changed his mind. He spoke of ''how much filth there is in the Church – even amongst those...in the priesthood". He had reached such a conclusion, it was said, by spending every previous Friday for months reading through the files of paedophile priest cases from the United States as a kind of penance.
Yet all that reading does not seem to have changed his fundamental prejudice that the Church comes first and damaged children second. In May 2005, Benedict was praised for putting an end to the legal protection that the Vatican City State had long given Father Marcial Maciel, the Mexican founder of the Legionaries of Christ, a traditionalist religious order.
Despite reports going back many years about Fr Maciel's alleged sexual abuse of youngsters in his seminaries, John Paul II had treated him as an honoured guest in the Vatican, embracing him publicly while, in effect, refusing to honour international arrest warrants for him to face charges of rape and buggery.
By contrast Pope Benedict has disciplined Maciel. He has ordered the priest, now in his late 80s, never again to say mass or speak in public. But many of Maciel's alleged victims want to know why the man they accuse isn't going to appear in the dock of a court. Why should the Catholic Church deal with him by God's law not man's?
Their anger is compounded when they see others who have been accused of abuse – or conspiracy to cover-up abuse – living unchallenged within the walls of the Vatican. Cardinal Bernard Law, in whose American archdiocese so many paedophile priests were left free to prey on children for so long, was forced to resign his post in Boston, but continues to hold a sinecure position in the Vatican civil service and is said to retain some influence at the court of Benedict XVI.
The other supposedly "positive" action taken by Benedict came in November of last year when he banned those with ''deep-seated homosexual tendencies" from training for the priesthood. Quoted by his aides as evidence of Benedict's determination to tackle paedophile priests, it instead demonstrates his muddled thinking. The Pope is conflating homosexuality and paedophilia as if two adults wanting to have sex with each other is the same as an adult wanting to abuse a child.
The Vatican remains fond of sending out instructions to its bishops on the minutiae of Catholic life, even down to how priests should dress and what age their housekeeper should be. Yet its current policy of leaving it up to local initiatives how to tackle the most corrosive allegations to have faced the Church in modern times is a damning testimony to its continuing inability to realise quite how serious the crisis is.
And principal among those in a state of denial is Pope Benedict XVI himself. That is the real charge that needs to be laid at his door.
|Peter Stanford is a former editor of the 'Catholic Herald' and author of 'Why I Am Still A Catholic' (Continuum)|