TESTING TIME FOR VATICAN

ROME - As Pope Benedict XVI faces growing pressure to address his role in the handling of sexual abuse cases over the years, the Vatican has acknowledged that its ability to handle the crisis is a crucial test of its "moral credibility".

ROME - As Pope Benedict XVI faces growing pressure to address his role in the handling of sexual abuse cases over the years, the Vatican has acknowledged that its ability to handle the crisis is a crucial test of its "moral credibility".

In a note read on Vatican radio on Saturday, Vatican spokesperson Father Federico Lombardi spoke about the recent media coverage of a widening abuse scandal in Europe.

"The nature of the question is such as to attract the attention of the media, and the way in which the church deals with it is crucial for its moral credibility," Lombardi said.

The note, which was not an official statement, comes as Benedict faces increased scrutiny about his role in handling abuse cases, especially as archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1980, when a known paedophile priest was transferred to his diocese.

In a harsh editorial on Friday, The National Catholic Reporter, an American Catholic publication, called on Benedict to "directly answer questions, in a credible forum" about his role "in the mismanagement of the clergy sex abuse crisis".

It said: "We now face the largest institutional crisis in centuries, possibly in church history. How this crisis is handled by Benedict, what he says and does, how he responds and what remedies he seeks, will likely determine the future health of our church for decades, if not centuries, to come.

"It is time, past time really, for direct answers to difficult questions," the editorial added. "It is time to tell the truth."

In his note on Saturday, a day before the start of Holy Week leading up to Easter, one of the most sacred weeks in the Catholic calendar, Lombardi pointed to the "extraordinary preventative efforts being undertaken" with training courses for youth and clergy after the application of the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" issued by the Catholic Church in the US.

He added that accusations of abuse fell 30percent over the last year and said most reported cases were more than 30 years old.

"The authority of the pope and the intense and coherent commitment of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith have not been weakened," Lombardi said.

"Rather, they have been confirmed in their support and guidance to bishops to combat and root out the blight of abuse wherever it happens."

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