VATICAN CITY — The Vatican has gone into full-fledged damage control mode in the priest sex abuse scandal ahead of Pope Benedict XVI's first foreign trip since it erupted. Officials are promising surprising new initiatives. The pope's personal secretary is speaking out. And bishops around the world are being told to report abuse cases to the police.
The revved-up strategy comes as the Vatican tries to stem the damage from weeks of revelations about priests who raped and molested children – and the church officials who kept it quiet – before the pontiff's visit to Malta this weekend. Abuse victims on that majority Roman Catholic Mediterranean island are seeking a papal audience and apology.
Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi declined Tuesday to confirm whether Benedict would meet with victims, but didn't rule it out. The pope is prepared to meet with victims, Lombardi said, but "in a climate of meditation and reflection, not under media pressures."
Before previous foreign trips, Lombardi has declined to confirm meetings with abuse victims until after they were held.
The Vatican has been reeling for weeks since reports surfaced that Benedict – when known as Joseph Ratzinger and served as archbishop in Munich from 1977-82 – approved therapy for a pedophile priest who was allowed to do pastoral work. The priest was later convicted of molesting boys. Since then, hundreds of people have come forward with abuse accusations in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, and old cases with connections to Rome and the pope himself have come to light in the United States.
Initially, the Vatican responded defensively, with Vatican officials and cardinals accusing the media, the Masons, pro-abortion rights and pro-gay marriage supporters for plotting attacks against the pope. Recently, the Vatican has shifted course, still complaining about an anti-Catholic campaign but also promising more transparency and taking initiatives to at least give an impression that change is afoot.
Lombardi said new initiatives were being studied, including more papal meetings with victims as well as a "deepening of the measures of prevention and response" to abuse. He declined to elaborate. But victims groups have long complained that the Vatican has never issued any universal norms instructing bishops on the pastoral care they should provide for victims or prevention strategies to make sure pedophiles aren't admitted into the priesthood in the first place.
On Monday during a trip to Chile, the Vatican's No. 2 official, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, said he believed the pope would take further initiatives "which won't fail to surprise us." He declined to elaborate.
Benedict's personal secretary, Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, spoke out Tuesday for the first time since the scandal broke, defending the pope's prolonged silence on the German cases and charging that Benedict had done more than anyone else to crack down on abuse.
"It does not make sense, nor is it helpful, for the Holy Father to comment personally on each case," he told the daily Bild, Germany's highest-circulation newspaper. "It is overlooked too fast that various bishops and bishops conferences carry responsibility."
The Vatican for weeks has been trying to argue the same – that abusive priests were primarily the responsibility of bishops, not Rome. That strategy has also been employed by the Vatican's lawyers in the U.S. who are trying to shield the Holy See from lawsuits alleging it was liable for the failure of bishops to report abuse cases to police.
On Monday, the Vatican posted on its Web site what it claimed is a long-standing policy telling bishops to report abuse to police, where civil laws require it. Such a policy has never before been explicitly spelled out.
Attorney William McMurry, who has sued the Holy See in Louisville, Kentucky, on negligence charges, said posting the policy was nothing more than an attempt by Rome to "deflect attention and responsibility for the past onto the bishops."
"If they always wanted bishops to report, they wouldn't need a black letter policy today," McMurry said.
He has argued that Vatican documents calling for sexual abuse cases to be kept secret and forwarded to Rome were evidence that the Holy See had mandated a cover-up of abuse.
Vatican attorney Jeffrey Lena has said the documents mandated said no such thing and that nothing in them precluded reporting abuse to police.
The posting of the policy nevertheless indicated a strong shift in the Vatican's much-criticized communications strategy. Alongside the policy, which spells out how canonical investigations are conducted, the Vatican has posted key documents and speeches the pontiff has delivered concerning abuse. It has made top officials available to the media. And it has turned to its U.S. lawyer – Lena – to do a lot of its talking.
While it's not clear what prompted the shift in tactics, the Vatican has been keeping a close eye on how the scandal is playing out in the United States and elsewhere, and seems increasingly attuned to the impression it has oftentimes created as an aloof institution that doesn't understand the outrage of victims and their families.
Giovanni Maria Vian, the editor in chief of the Vatican's newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, conceded that there had been communications problems in the initial phases of the scandal, and that some comments by Vatican officials seemingly minimizing the scandal or attempting to deflect it hadn't been "prudent."
But he noted: "Let's be clear. Everyone has communications problems."
"One could do better. Sure one could do better. We're trying to do it every day," Vian told reporters at the foreign press association.
The pope, officials say, has remained tranquil despite the storm. He took in a film on Friday night about the wartime Pope Pius XII and spent the past week on vacation at the papal summer residence. He remains well-informed about everything going on, Vian said.
"If you ask me if the Vatican feels under siege, I say that I do not feel under siege," Lombardi said.
Associated Press Writer Victor L. Simpson contributed to this report.