ROME, March 25, 2010— -- The Vatican fought back today in the face of headlines and protests assailing Pope Benedict XVI's handling of sex scandals involving Catholic priests, calling the accusations a "conspiracy."
The Catholic Church's simmering sex scandal has heated up to a full boil in recent months as it spread to Ireland and the pope's native Germany.
The growing outrage was fueled by accusations today that before he was the pope, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger declined to punish a Wisconsin priest who admitted molesting 200 deaf boys at a special school because the priest was elderly, sick and said he had repented.
One of the pope's top aides, Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, lashed out at the accusations.
"This is a pretext for attacking the church," the cardinal told a breakfast meeting with reporters, according to Reuters. "There is a well-organized plan with a very clear aim."
He did not state the aim of the "conspiracy."
Although the church has adopted a policy of zero tolerance for sexual abuse by priests, Saraiva Martins said he could understand why bishops covered up incidences of child abuse by their priests.
"We should not be too scandalized if some bishops knew about it but kept it secret," he said. "This is what happens in every family. You don't wash your dirty laundry in public."
The cardinal blamed the burgeoning number of scandals on lawyers "wanting to make a lot of money."
An editorial in the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano also chided the pope's critics, saying the latest accusations are "clearly an ignoble attempt to strike at Pope Benedict and his closest aides at any cost."
Outside the Vatican, an American group calling itself Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests demonstrated and called for accountability of priests who sexually abused children and the bishops who helped cover up their activities.
Inside the Vatican, however, the pope met with children in preparation for World Youth Day.
Pope's Role in German Sex Scandal Questioned
Much of the furor surrounding the pope stems from his role as head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the church's disciplinary office, from 1981 to 2005, and during his time as archbishop of Munich, Germany.
The pope caused uproar earlier this month when he apologized to the Catholics of Ireland for a sex scandal that involves thousands of victims, but did not say that anyone would be held accountable. On Wednesday, however, the pope accepted the resignation of a bishop who failed to report rampant abuse to police.
The pope came under fire recently for his tenure as archbishop of Munich during a time when sex scandals rocked the famed Regensburg Cathedral boys choir. The choir was run by the pope's older brother, Bishop Georg Ratzinger, who has insisted he was unaware of any accusations of abuse. The pope has remained silent on the matter.
More than 300 Germans have come forward since January to claim they were sexually abused as children.
German civil authorities and German church officials have both begun probes into the handling of the abuses.
A poll by Stern magazine earlier this month found that only 24 percent of German Catholics trusted the pope.
Robert Mickens, the Vatican correspondent for the Tablet weekly, said the church's German sex scandals have rocked the Papal Palace.
"They have gotten dangerously close, I would say, because he was the archbishop of Munich for almost five years from 1977 until early 1982," Mickens said. "The way the church is set up, it is a hierarchy and the bishop ... is the one who is ultimately in charge.
"Cardinal Ratzinger, Benedict XVI, certainly is as involved in these cases as anybody in the Roman Catholic Church," he said.
"I think the pope is trying to be honest and transparent. I don't think he has any choice at this point," Mickens said. "He has not tried to stop these things from coming out. But on the other hand, he has not done anything to actively pull this stuff out into the open. My only question is: What took him so long?
"In a sense," Mickens said, "the pope has been dragged to this moment."