Pope Benedict XVI is facing a crisis. The sexual abuse scandal that first rocked the U.S. Catholic Church in 2002 is now spreading to Australia, Brazil, Ireland, Germany and elsewhere. Alleged victims are coming forward almost daily, claiming abuse. Since January, 300 Germans have told authorities they were abused in Catholic choirs and schools.
"Until this moment, all the abuse scandals were happening far away," Marco Politi, a Vatican analyst, told ABC News. "Now it came to Europe, also in the diocese of Pope Benedict."
The pope himself stands accused of complicity. As an archbishop in Germany in the 1980s, then Cardinal Ratzinger referred an accused pedophile priest to a therapist, not the police.
That priest was then put back onto pastoral duties and went on to abuse again, authorities say. One of Ratzinger's deputies in the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising claims that Ratzinger approved the therapy, but knew nothing of the pedophile priest being assigned once again to an active role in the church.
"That's an attempt at damage control," The Rev. Thomas Doyle told ABC News. Doyle is a Dominican priest who once worked at the Vatican embassy in Washington, D.C., before becoming an advocate for the rights of victims of sexual abuse. "Head of the Archdiocese of Munich was Archbishop Ratzinger," said Doyle. "No priest gets assigned anywhere unless it's signed off by the archbishop."
The Vatican strongly denies Doyle's assessment. There are whispers in Rome of a conspiracy to discredit the pontiff. Last weekend, another accusation surfaced that could embroil Benedict even further into this scandal.
A man who sang as a boy with a renowned Catholic choir in the early 1990s claims he was sexually abused by older choristers. Benedict's brother, Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, was director of the choir at the time.
The pope is also being criticized, perhaps too strongly, some say, for signing a document in 2001 that reiterated Vatican policy that all internal legal investigations should be kept secret, which has lead to accusations that Benedict ordered a cover-up of allegations against pedophile priests.
At the time, Ratzinger was a powerful cardinal in Rome instrumental in dealing with the church's handling of abuse allegations.
There's no one who can fire the pope, except for the Almighty," said Doyle. "However, his moral authority and the respect due to the office and to the Vatican is very definitely in danger."
Benedict has met with victims of abuse in the U.S. and Australia and has spoken out against the abusers. "We will absolutely exclude pedophiles from the sacred ministry," The pope told reporters in 2008. He has in the past weeks spoken with Irish and German bishops of his distress at the growing evidence of abuse.
"The papal statements, the words, the expressions are close to useless," said Doyle. "What people want is action."
In Ireland in particular, the Catholic Church faces serious challenges. Two damning reports into abuse and the efforts of priests policing it to allegedly cover it up were published last year.
There is growing resentment of an institution that has dominated Irish life for centuries. This week, an Irish cardinal, Sean Brady, apologized for not reporting an infamous pedophile priest, Brendan Smyth, to police in the 1970s. Smyth abused over 100 children during a 40-year career in the church, authorities say. Brady also apologized for pressuring two victims of abuse to sign vows of silence.
"I apologized to those who, due to my failures in the past, have suffered," Brady told reporters.
Tomorrow, the pope delivers his letter to the faithful in Ireland, hoping to dampen the flames of this rapidly spreading scandal.
"I ask all of you to read it for yourselves, with an open heart and in a spirit of faith," Benedict told the crowds gathered for mass in St. Peter's Square Wednesday. "My hope is that it will help in the process of repentance, healing and renewal."
Will his hope for healing be answered? Richard Sipe, another advocate for the victims of abuse, claims that, worldwide over the past 50 years, nearly half a million children have been abused at the hands of the Catholic Church.