VATICAN CITY – The religious orders and bishops’ conferences dealing with cases of clerical sexual abuse of children in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands are acting quickly, decisively and with transparency to uncover the truth and assist the victims, said the Vatican spokesman.

Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office, said March 9 that the religious orders and bishops’ conferences not only “have proven their commitment to transparency, in a certain sense they have accelerated the uncovering of the problem by asking victims to come forward even when it involved cases from many years ago.”

The correct way to proceed, he said, is to recognize what happened and concretely demonstrate concern for the victims and the consequences the abuse has had on them.

The new revelations of abuse, mainly at Catholic schools, in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands as well as the recent report on abuse in Ireland “mobilize the church to elaborate appropriate responses and should be inserted in the context of a problem that is wider and involves the safeguarding of children and youths from sexual abuse in society,” Fr. Lombardi said.

Sexual abuse at the hands of a priest or other church worker is “particularly reprehensible,” he said, but those who have the good of children at heart must recognize that the problem is present in many other sectors of society and “to concentrate the accusations only against the church leads to falsifying one’s perspective.”

Fr. Lombardi said German Chancellor Angela Merkel was right to convoke a round table of people involved in the fields of education and social services for children to examine the phenomenon of child sexual abuse from a broader perspective.

“The church naturally is ready to participate,” he said Fr. Lombardi also said the church lives in society and recognizes the responsibility and authority of government courts to impose criminal and civil penalties on abusers.

At the same time, he said, in the view of the church’s own internal laws “the crime of the sexual abuse of minors has always been considered one of the most serious crimes of all.”

The bishops’ conferences of the countries where the sex abuse scandal has returned to the headlines are reviewing all of their procedures and are setting up offices to help the victims, he said.

“While no one can deny the seriousness of the turmoil the church is going through, we cannot hesitate to do everything possible so that positive results are achieved for improving the protection of children and youth in the church and in society, and for the purification of the church itself,” Fr. Lombardi said.

The spokesman’s comments came the day after the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, said the Vatican fully supports the efforts of German bishops to investigate claims of child sexual abuse in Catholic institutions, even if the cases are decades old. “Full disclosure regarding abuse in Germany,” said the front-page

headline of the March 7 edition of the official Vatican newspaper.

“The church is working rigorously to shed light on what happened in religious institutions,” it said.

The article followed a letter posted March 5 on the Web site of the Diocese of Regensburg, acknowledging past cases of sexual abuse of young students attending the Domspatzen, the school that trains the elite boys’ choir of the Regensburg Cathedral.

Initial news reports said the abuse may have occurred while Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, brother of Pope Benedict XVI, was serving as choirmaster at the school. But the Regensburg Diocese said the cases occurred in the late 1950s, while Msgr. Ratzinger held the post from 1964 to 1994.

Msgr. Ratzinger told the Italian daily La Repubblica that no cases of priestly pedophilia had come to his attention during his tenure there, but that he would be willing to testify should he be summoned by German judicial authorities.

In an online letter addressed to students and parents, Regensburg Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Muller spoke of two former priests at the school who had been involved in incidents of pedophilia in the 1950s and subsequently jailed. The letter asked anyone with information regarding similar episodes to come forward and said it was seeking specifically a former student who had told German news media that he had been abused at the school.

In a news conference March 5, Bishop Muller said any claims of sexual abuse would be treated with “the maximum transparence.”

The Vatican, wrote L’Osservatore Romano, “supports the diocese in its willingness to analyze this painful issue with decisiveness and openness, according to the rules established by the German bishops’ conference.”

The church’s main objective, the paper wrote, “is to render justice to the victims.” It said authorities from other institutions, including public schools, should adopt a similar attitude.

As has happened in the United States, Ireland, Australia and other countries, dozens of Germans have made claims recently that they suffered sexual abuse as children while attending Catholic schools.

And as in those situations, the church leadership has been accused of protecting priests rather than children.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, a senior German prelate and the Vatican’s chief ecumenical official, said in an interview in La Repubblica that priestly sexual abuse must be punished and the church must take responsibility.

“Enough! We need serious housecleaning in our church,” he said, adding that “the pope is certainly not standing idly by.”

He called the sexual abuse of minors on the part of clergy “a criminal, shameful act and an inexcusable mortal sin.”

Cardinal Kasper said, “The Holy Father is right in seeking clarity and demanding zero tolerance toward whoever is stained by such grave sins.”

The leadership of the German bishops’ conference will be meeting with Pope Benedict March 12 at the Vatican. The visit was scheduled previously, but the rapidly developing sex abuse scandal was sure to be discussed.

The pope met in February with Irish bishops to discuss the problem of widespread sexual abuse of minors in Catholic schools after a scathing independent report accused the Irish church of maintaining a culture of secrecy for many years.

The pope was to write a pastoral letter to Irish Catholics regarding what he called the “heinous crime” of priestly sexual abuse.

Cardinal Kasper said that while the question of the pastoral letter was up to the pope, he felt that because “such a difficult problem has emerged not only in Ireland, but in Holland, Germany and the United States, perhaps it deserves a more general analysis that applies to the universal church and not just a single nation.”

Claims have been made that some students had suffered physical and psychological abuse as well in German Catholic schools. Msgr.

Ratzinger said that while he served at the school, “there was a climate of discipline and rigor … but also of human understanding, almost like a family.”

He said he believed that there was “a certain animosity toward the church, and I see behind certain claims the intention to speak against the church.”