PARIS (Reuters) - Catholic churches in Europe rallied behind Pope Benedict on Friday, rejecting claims he had covered up child sex abuse by priests and praising him as a leader determined to combat scandals challenging the Church.
France’s bishops conference, the archbishop of London and the Munich archdiocese that Benedict once headed all rejected allegations from the media a day after the Vatican angrily accused its critics of an “ignoble attempt” to smear him.
Also on Friday, Bishop Adrianus van Luyn, head of the Dutch bishops conference, admitted he knew three decades ago about abuse cases there revealed last month. More than 1,100 people have since reported claims to an abuse hotline.
In Rome, an influential order of priests, whose late founder Rev. Marcial Maciel was found to be a molester who had fathered at least one child, apologized to abuse victims and disowned him.
“Very Holy Father ... we send you a cordial message of support in this difficult period our Church is going through,” the French bishops said in a statement that referred to “a campaign to attack your person and your service to the Church.”
Writing in the London Times, Archbishop Vincent Nichols said Benedict made important changes in Church law to fight child abuse when he was the Vatican’s top doctrinal official.
“He is not an idle observer. His actions speak as well as his words,” he wrote.
Both Nichols and the French bishops expressed sympathy with abuse victims and said their national churches had taken decisive steps to root out offenders and safeguard children.
“I am ashamed of what happened and understand the outrage and anger it has provoked,” Nichols wrote.
“We all feel shame and regret at the abominable acts committed by certain priests,” the French statement said.
The Munich archdiocese Benedict headed between 1977 and 1982 denied a New York Times report that the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had been informed that a priest under therapy for pedophilia was reassigned to a post with access to children.
“We stand by our account that Cardinal Ratzinger didn’t know about this decision,” spokesman Bernhard Kellner told Reuters. “I cannot confirm he knew about this.”
The Times report said Ratzinger was copied in on a memo about the transfer of Rev. Peter Hullermann, who was convicted six years later of molesting a boy but remained active as a priest until he was identified in the current scandal wave.
“An archbishop doesn’t read all the administrative acts. He just can’t. That’s why he has a vicar general,” Kellner added.
The then vicar general, Rev. Gerhard Gruber, took full responsibility earlier this month for reinstating Hullermann, who has since been suspended from his priestly duties.
The New York Times reported on Thursday that the Vatican did not defrock a U.S. priest accused of sexually abusing up to 200 deaf boys in Milwaukee from the 1950s to the 1970s.
A Vatican spokesman said civil authorities had investigated his abuse in 1974 without bringing charges against him.
In the Netherlands, the Dutch bishops conference confirmed that Bishop van Luyn had known about sexual abuse cases in boarding schools run by the Salesian order of priests when he was their Dutch province leader from 1975 to 1981.
The Dutch bishops launched an independent inquiry headed by a Protestant politician soon after victims, emboldened by debates about sexual abuse in Ireland and Germany, came forward early this month to accuse three Salesian priests of abuse.
“In his capacity as provincial from 1975 to 1981, the then Rev. van Luyn did learn about some cases and had to take measures,” it said in a statement without saying what he did.
“The bishop will wait to speak to the independent inquiry that is now being prepared,” it added. A Church hotline for abuse victims has received over 1,100 calls since early March.
Cardinal Adrianus Simonis, retired archbishop of Utrecht, caused an uproar this week by saying bishops were as uninformed about abuse years ago as wartime Germans were of the Holocaust. He said on Friday he regretted the comparison.