At its holiest time of the year, the Roman Catholic Church is being forced to confront not only the central mystery of the faith — life after death — but also a more worldly riddle: What did the Holy Father know, and when did he know it?

Questions about whether Pope Benedict XVI was personally involved, as he rose through the church hierarchy, in sweeping incidents of sexual abuse by parish priests under the rug have put the Vatican on the defensive. A top legal official of the Holy See even felt obliged to argue, in an interview with the Rome newspaper Corriere della Sera, that the Vatican is not legally responsible for any failure by individual bishops to properly handle reports of abuse — and that, in any event, Benedict is a head of state and thus beyond the jurisdiction of any foreign court.

A spokesman said that Benedict sees the sex scandal as a “test for him and the church” and is spending Holy Week in “humility and penitence.” Another official, Cardinal William Levada, took a much more aggressive approach, releasing a lengthy statement attacking newspaper stories that have sought to investigate Benedict’s role. Levada, who is prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — essentially the Vatican’s chief enforcer on matters of faith, a post Benedict held for more than 20 years before becoming pope — singled out the New York Times’ reporting as “deficient by any reasonable standards of fairness.”

The most explosive allegation is that Benedict, in his old job, did not take action to defrock a Wisconsin priest, Lawrence Murphy, who had molested as many as 200 boys at a school for deaf children. Benedict’s office halted a church trial of Murphy when it was learned that he was terminally ill; the priest was investigated by civil authorities as well but never faced charges. He died in 1998.

The particulars of this case, and another one from when Benedict was archbishop of Munich, do raise real questions about the pope’s handling of abuse allegations. It was all-too-common practice for priests found to have raped or abused young boys to be quietly reassigned, and ultimately that is what happened in these instances.

The larger problem for the church this Easter season is not just that the man considered the Vicar of Christ is personally being scrutinized but that the sex abuse scandal has become a major issue outside of the United States. For years, those so inclined could put the whole thing down as an overreaction by litigious Americans. Now the scandal has spread throughout Europe. German bishops are operating a hot line for abuse victims, Danish and Swiss bishops have launched investigations of old claims, and an Austrian cardinal has held a service for victims in which he admitted the church’s guilt. Last month, Benedict sharply rebuked Irish bishops for errors of judgment in handling allegations of rape.

Even more disturbing, the scandal has spread to the heart of today’s church — Latin America. In Brazil, where more Roman Catholics live than in any other country, a television network aired a video that purported to show a priest in the northeast state of Alagoas having sex with an altar boy. That priest and two others have been suspended by the church and are under investigation by police.

Here lies the real crisis for the church. The United States, with its ethic of individualism and its legions of trial lawyers, can be thought of as a special case. European societies are aging, and the continent’s majestic churches are often practically empty at Mass. It is countries such as Brazil and Mexico, with their growing population and burgeoning economic development, that represent the future for the Vatican. But there is intense competition throughout the developing world from evangelical Protestant denominations, and any suggestion of scandal and corruption can only damage the Catholic Church’s prospects.

Easter is a time for Benedict, as the spiritual leader of a billion people, to meditate and reflect. Then he must act. It is time for the pope to be comprehensively honest and open about the tragic failure of the church to prevent or punish horrific sexual abuse — including his own errors — and he must credibly assure the faithful that such crimes will never be allowed to happen again. Even more urgently, molesters still serving as priests must be defrocked and reported to civilian authorities.

Penance, as Benedict well knows, is a sacrament. It is not optional.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)

© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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