VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI may issue a mea culpa for the church's handling of clerical sexual abuse cases when he attends a meeting of the world's clergy in June, the Vatican official in charge of handling abuse cases said.
Cardinal William Levada also said he intended to hold up the U.S. policy dealing with abuse as a model for bishops around the word.
Levada, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, made the comments in an interview broadcast late Tuesday on U.S. public broadcaster PBS, his first interview since the scandal erupted several weeks ago.
"It's a big crisis. I think no one should try to diminish that," Levada said. He acknowledged that the Vatican was caught by surprise, even though it was well aware of the scope of the U.S. and Irish crises, and blamed "a certain media bias" for keeping the story alive.
As the scandal has raged around the Vatican, Benedict has come under increasing pressure to admit some form of higher responsibility on the part of the Vatican for fomenting a culture of secrecy that allowed abuse to fester unchecked for decades.
Benedict has expressed his sorrow and shame for the abuse, he has wept with victims and promised new measures to protect children and bring justice to pedophile priests. But he has admitted no personal or institutional responsibility, blaming instead the abusers themselves and their bishops for mishandling cases when they arose.
Italian news reports this week suggested Benedict would use the June 9-11 meeting of the world's priests at the Vatican to issue some form of apology.
The meeting was initially called to simply mark the end of the Vatican's Year of the Priest. A few weeks ago, as Benedict came under fire in the abuse scandal, the meeting's focus shifted and its organizers signaled it would instead be a giant pep rally to show solidarity with the besieged pontiff.
Now, it appears it will be also be a forum for Benedict to make a strong statement apologizing for abuse. Asked about the reports that a papal mea culpa would be issued, Levada said: "Whether he is going to do that or not we'll have to wait and see, but I wouldn't be surprised."
Levada was more forthcoming about his intention to hold up the U.S. abuse norms as a model for bishops conferences around the world.
The U.S. norms bar credibly accused priests from any public church work while claims against them are under investigation. Diocesan review boards, comprised mostly of lay people, help bishops oversee cases. Clergy found guilty are permanently barred from public ministry and, in some cases, ousted from the priesthood.
The U.S. policy does not specifically order all bishops to notify civil authorities when claims are made. Instead it instructs bishops to comply with state laws for reporting abuse, and to cooperate with authorities. All dioceses were also instructed to advise victims of their right to contact authorities themselves.
It requires dioceses to maintain "safe environment" programs to educate children, parents and priests to keep children safe and prevent abuse.
Levada called the norms a "real success story" that should be a model for others – bishops as well as Boy Scouts and public schools.
"I will look forward to helping my brother bishops around the world see what can be done if you take good concrete steps, put things out on the table, make sure that you've got a program to educate your priests and screen for any problem areas as you are admitting priest and have a good program for safe environment," he said.
"I think that's happened in the United States and it should be something that can be done throughout the church."
Many bishops conferences have norms on the books already; many have said they planned to revise them in the wake of the scandal. Officially speaking, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says no European bishops conference has asked them for advice; with Levada in Rome, however, that may not come as a surprise.
Even with a Vatican-approved policy on the books, advocates for victims and church leaders disagree over how closely the U.S. policy has been followed. And even with all the reforms, the American church is still paying the price for the problem.
American dioceses have paid more than $2.7 billion for settlements and other costs since 1950, according to tallies by the bishops and news reports.