The storm buffeting God's Rottweiler
I was in Ghent at the weekend and dropped in on Saint Bavo's monumental cathedral. It was Palm Sunday. The place bursts with Gothic extravagance; its soaring brick roof testifying to another era and the muscular confidence of the Catholic Church. By the time I was there the service was over and people, clutching fronds or sprigs of green, were embracing each other.
It was a peaceful ritual that belies the storm battering the Church. Across Europe, there is now a torrent of allegations against predatory priests and the abuse of children. In Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Ireland, Italy and the Netherlands people are emerging, with their often buried stories, and pointing their fingers at priests and bishops. One Catholic paper opined that this scandal was the "largest in centuries" to trouble the Church.
The questions facing the Vatican are these: Was its priority protecting vulnerable children or guarding the reputation of the Church? Were children systematically abused at Catholic schools and were paedophile priests shipped out to other parishes rather than being prosecuted?
There is the story from Ireland of a cardinal being present when two teenage boys were persuaded to sign oaths of silence. The priest who was accused of abusing them was never reported to the police and was free to abuse again.
It is impossible to know the scale of this, but across the world thousands of children may have been abused; their lives damaged, tormented by guilt and struggling to form stable, loving relationships.
The scandal is now knocking at the Pope's door in Vatican City. Before he was pontiff, he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and was known as God's Rottweiler, the enforcer who instilled orthodoxy in the Church. He was also in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and was the chief investigator, in charge of the office monitoring priestly misconduct.
Two cases have drawn the Pope directly into this crisis.
One involves the Rev Lawrence Murphy, a priest who worked at a school for deaf children in Milwaukee. Around 150 men with impaired hearing claim they were abused by the priest. Complaints against the Rev Murphy were made at a very senior level but why, it is asked, did the Pope, when he was cardinal, not take steps to ensure the man could not abuse again?
A second case concerns Peter Hullermann, a Bavarian priest who undertook therapy for paedophilia in Ratzinger's diocese; he was transferred to a new parish where, it is alleged, he continued to molest boys. The Pope says he had no knowledge of the decision to reassign him.
Vatican officials insist that as cardinal, Pope Benedict had "zero tolerance" towards priests who committed abuse and that he proposed a fast-track to de-frock them. They insist that the number of recent allegations are falling and that reflects some of the reforms that the Pope himself introduced.
The Church, however, seems totally unprepared for a global media bent on discovering what happened. They show no deference towards the institution. Lawyers in the United States talk of wanting to know "who knew what and when", echoing the pursuit of former President Richard Nixon. There is a search for documents covering the time when the Pope was a top Vatican official.
So, as more is revealed, more questions follow. That is the nature of these stories. One paper suggests the Pope knew that Hullermann would be able to return to pastoral work. It seems his name was found on a memo. So reporters demand answers as if the Vatican was the White House and there was a duty to explain.
In the face of this the Vatican has been defensive. Its paper L'Osservatore Romano said the allegations were part of an "ignoble attempt to strike at Pope Benedict". A spokesman is quoted as saying the Pope has not been weakened by this.
The Primate of Poland, Henryk Muszynski, says criticism of Pope Benedict amounts to a personal attack on the pontiff and an attempt to discredit the Church.
Yesterday, on Palm Sunday, the Pope was cryptic in his sermon. He spoke of Jesus Christ helping Christians "towards the courage of not allowing oneself to be intimidated by the petty gossip and dominant opinion".
There may be "petty gossip" out there but a Vatican spokesman has accepted that the "moral credibility" of the Church is at stake.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has spoken of the need for "truth and clarity about everything that took place."
The biggest challenge is to provide an honest accounting as to what happened. Some are suggesting that outside independent lawyers should have access to Vatican files. Beyond that lies a question that eats away at Church doctrine. Abuse was not isolated. It was not confined to Ireland. It may well have been endemic and that demands an answer to the question "why?"
In the United States hundreds of priests were dismissed over a three year period. Ultimately the Church will have to explain "why" and then justify continuing with celibacy.
Meanwhile, the president of Switzerland has called for a sex-offender's list for clergy. In Vienna an archbishop is considering setting up a commission to examine abuse claims. Legal action is being planned in Italy against a priest suspected of molesting 30 children in 2001.
It is a story that has the potential to shake the Church; an institution whose buildings still define so much of Europe's public space as I observed in Ghent yesterday.