VATICAN CITY – The Vatican criticized on Tuesday what it said is a bid to undermine the church, which is facing a deepening scandal over child sexual abuse by priests in Europe.
As fresh allegations mounted against clergy in Austria, adding to hundreds of cases in Germany and the Netherlands, Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone acknowledged that confidence in the church had declined.
"There has been a reduction in faith in all institutions, including the church," said Bertone, No. 2 in the Vatican hierarchy, after meeting Italian business leaders.
"The church still enjoys great confidence on the part of the faithful, it is just that someone is trying to undermine that," he said, without referring directly to the pedophilia scandal. "But the church has special help, from above."
In recent weeks, senior prelates have said it is unfair to single out the church for child abuse, which also occurs in secular institutions. They have accused the media of exaggerating the problem.
However, in Austria, local media reported on Tuesday rising numbers of people leaving the Catholic Church as accusations of priestly pedophilia continued to shock the nation.
Fresh allegations surfaced in the Tyrol province, while five clergy were suspended from an Austrian monastery at the center of an existing case. A newspaper published an apology from one of the men to former pupils saying: "I never wanted to be a sadist."
Austrian authorities said religious and secular groups are being invited to a roundtable in April about how to protect children better.
"This is far from being just about the church: 80 to 90 percent of the cases happen in families," said junior family minister Christine Marek.
Germany, where more than 200 reports have emerged of abuse at Catholic institutions, also has convened a similar roundtable for April 23, including Catholic and Protestant leaders, teachers, civil society, and victims.
The scandal there has personally drawn in Bavarian-born Pope Benedict XVI, whose brother ran the prestigious Regensburg choir, which has been linked to cases of abuse, for 30 years.
The Vatican on Saturday strongly rejected suggestions that Benedict himself tried to cover up priestly child abuse when he was archbishop of Munich and Freising from 1977 to 1981.
But the pope has been criticized in Germany for failing to condemn abuse after meeting the head of the German church, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, on Friday. That echoed complaints from Irish victims he did not take a hard enough line on abuse there.
Benedict reprimanded Irish bishops at the Vatican last month after a government report last year said church leaders covered up child abuse for 30 years. He is due to send a pastoral letter soon to the Irish people about sexual abuse in Ireland.
© 2013 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.