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Church sex abuse brings trouble to pope

By Dan Gilgoff, CNN
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Scandal rocks German church
  • Roughly 170 Germans have reported sexual abuse by Catholic priests
  • Germany is pope's home country
  • Pope Benedict was archbishop there in early 1980s
  • Archbishop's number two official from that time claims full responsibility

(CNN) -- With allegations of sexual abuse by Catholic priests piling up in Germany and Ireland and surfacing in Austria and the Netherlands, Europe appears poised to face church abuse in the broad, wrenching way the United States did in the last decade.

But because Europe is home to the Catholic Church, new revelations of abuse there could have different -- and more serious -- consequences for the church and Pope Benedict XVI.

"Is he likely to resign? No," Vatican analyst John Allen told CNN, referring to the pope. "The last pope to resign was in the 12th century. To date, very few Catholic bishops of any sort have resigned over mishandling the crisis."

"Does this do enormous damage to him and his papacy, does it damage his moral credibility and his reputation?" Allen continued. "There is a risk there."

In recent weeks allegations of abuse by priests have been accumulating fastest in Germany, Benedict's home country. On Friday, the archdiocese of Munich revealed that it had allowed an abusive priest to continue pastoring in the early 1980s, when Pope Benedict -- then known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- was archbishop there.

It was the first incident of the handling of a case of priestly sexual abuse to possibly implicate the pontiff himself.

The Vatican responded swiftly to the disclosure, with the archdiocese's number two official from the time claiming full responsibility for allowing the priest to continue ministering.

But more sexual abuse allegations are expected to emerge across Europe. "It is like a tsunami or an extensive fire," said Father Andreas Batlogg, editor of the German Jesuit magazine Stimmen der Zeit. "The estimated number of undetected cases seems to be far higher than the yet known ones."

Nearly every day since the end of January, more Germans have come forward with allegations of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, with roughly 170 reporting such abuse.

Two self-identified German victims were connected to a boy's choir that was directed by Father Georg Ratzinger, the pope's brother, from 1964 to 1994.

The accusations in Germany emerged just as the Vatican was responding to the sex abuse scandal in Ireland, where a 2009 government report found that the church for decades covered up widespread sexual abuse by priests there. The pope met with Irish bishops last month to discuss the scandal and is expected to issue a letter on the matter as early as this week.

Video: Catholic abuse scandal
Video: Pope on scandal in Ireland
It's a very volatile and dangerous time for the Vatican
--David Gibson, Vatican expert and Benedict biographer

Many Vatican watchers now expect that letter to address the church abuse allegations roiling broader Europe.

Last week Catholic bishops in the Netherlands announced an independent investigation into allegations of child abuse by clergy after hundreds of reports flowed in following revelations about such abuse at a Dutch boarding school in the 1960s and 1970s. Accusations of sex abuse have also begun mounting in Austria.

"There's certainly a domino effect, a kind of momentum building," said David Gibson, a Vatican expert and Benedict biographer. "Once allegations come out, two things happen: it emboldens other victims to speak up and it emboldens the authorities, because the public outrage about these crimes make the church less of a sacred cow."

In some ways, the fallout from the sex abuse scandal in Europe may be less dramatic than in the U.S., where the Catholic Church has paid out $2.5 billion to victims of sexual abuse since the scandal broke in Boston in 2002.

The church in Europe may be more difficult to sue because it receives state support in many countries and because of statute of limitations laws. And the continent is already much more secular than the United States.

But the Vatican appears sensitive to damage that the new sex abuse allegations could inflict, especially as the charges get closer to the pope. The Vatican pushed back with unusual speed against suggestions that the pope mishandled the abusive priest in Munich's archdiocese.

"[O]ver recent days some people have sought -- with considerable persistence... [to] personally involve the Holy Father in questions of abuse," a Vatican spokesman said Saturday. "To any objective observer, it is clear that these efforts have failed."

But the allegations in Germany and across Europe are likely to keep coming. "It's a very volatile and dangerous time for the Vatican," said Gibson. "How can he ask bishops (who chose to retain abusive priests) to resign in Ireland if it comes out tomorrow that he did similar things?"

Until now, Benedict has been praised in some quarters for his handling of the church's sex abuse crisis. He is the first pontiff to meet with victims of church abuse in the United States, for instance.

"This is not just another crisis story about the papacy that has had plenty of crises," Allen said. "It's happening in the one area where even Benedict's critics have been willing to give him credit."