Abuse scandal, rows blight pope’s image

Pope Benedict XVI's election sparked joy in Germany, but the Church's reaction to a sex abuse scandal and a series of controversies have dented his image ahead of his first state trip home.

“Wir Sind Papst” (“We are pope”) crowed Germany's top-selling Bild daily in a famous front-page when Benedict was elected in 2005, encapsulating a nation's pride in the first German-born pontiff for more than 500 years.

“It's the sensation of the century,” the influential paper wrote, as the German Church noted the significance of a countryman elected to lead the world's 1.2 billion Catholics 60 years after the capitulation of Nazi Germany.

But that was six years ago.

Now, while the man born Joseph Ratzinger 84 years ago in the tiny Bavarian village of Marktl-am-Inn will likely be welcomed home by cheering crowds, there will also be protests and a certain degree of apathy in Germany.

“Having just swept all before him in (Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez) Zapatero's Spain, Benedict may very well find Germany to be one of his bigger challenges,” said Samuel Gregg, director of research at the US-based Acton Institute, a think tank on religion and economics.

A poll published the week before Benedict's four-day trip showed 86 percent of Germans - including 63 percent of Catholics -

thought the trip was “basically unimportant” or “totally unimportant” for them personally.

Even Vatican Radio's German service concluded before the visit, “there is a sense that the pope and Germans are strangers to each other.”

Protest groups expect around 20 000 people to demonstrate against the pontiff and some deputies have threatened to boycott his speech in parliament, amid concerns over the separation of Church and state.

Germany's Christians are split down the middle between Catholics and Protestants. According to figures published by the German Bishops' Conference, there were 24.7 million Catholics in 2010 and 24.2 million Protestants.

But Benedict's trip comes as Catholics - and Protestants - are leaving the Church in droves. In 2010, more than 181 000 people deserted the Roman Catholic Church - roughly one every three minutes.

Observers put this down, at least in part, to last year's “annus horribilis” with the emergence of a high-profile sex abuse scandal that deeply harmed the German Catholic Church's image.

Germany's top archbishop admitted the Church had “failed” in its response as hundreds said they were physically and sexually abused as children in Catholic institutions decades ago amid allegations the crimes were hushed up.

“It's not my sense that Benedict is viewed in any way as being particularly at fault himself for what happened in Germany or elsewhere in the 1970s and 80s,” said Gregg.

But he added: “To the extent that the Church's moral standing has been discredited by the scandal, it's inevitable that the pope's standing is also affected.”

The pontiff also touched perhaps Germany's most sensitive nerve by lifting the excommunication of a bishop who denied the Nazis killed six million Jews in World War II - earning himself a rare rebuke from Chancellor Angela Merkel.

In a series of interviews published in a book last year, Benedict said that he would not have done this had he known about the bishop's views on the Holocaust.

Meanwhile, during a private visit to the southern city of Regensburg in 2006, the pope became embroiled in perhaps the biggest row of his papacy after appearing to link Islam with violence.

Nevertheless, organisers expect enthusiastic throngs at Benedict's public appearances and his mass in Berlin's Olympic Stadium is to draw a capacity crowd of 70 000.

Not all Germans are indifferent to the visit. “We are pope - still,” Julia Kloeckner, an MP from Merkel's conservatives told the Rheinische Post daily. - Sapa-AFP

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