DUBLIN - Pope Benedict XVI addresses Ireland Saturday in a letter apologizing for the sex abuse scandal here - a message being watched closely by Catholics from Boston to Berlin to see if it also acknowledges decades of Vatican-approved cover-ups.
The church is only beginning to come to terms with decades of child abuse in its parishes and schools. The scandals first emerged in Canada and Australia in the 1980s, Ireland in the 1990s, the United States this decade and, in recent months, Benedict's German homeland.
Victims' rights activists say that to begin mending the church's image, Benedict's message - his first pastoral letter on child abuse - must break his silence on the role of the Catholic hierarchy in shielding pedophile clergy from prosecution.
As leader of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger was responsible for a 2001 Vatican edict that instructed bishops to report all child abuse to Vatican authorities under strict secrecy; it made no mention of reporting crimes to police.
Benedict, who served as archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1982, has yet to speak about the hundreds of abuse cases emerging since January in Germany.
Dirk Taenzler, director of the Federation for German Catholic Youth, said his members were appalled by the revelations of abuse in church-run schools and choirs - and wondered why the pope had yet to address his fellow Germans. "Everyone is suffering from the church's bad image," Taenzler said. "It is an issue in every congregation and everyone is trying to cope."
Benedict's successor in Munich, Archbishop Reinhard Marx, said the pope should not be expected to take responsibility for abuses by individual priests. "We expect the pope to take a stand on everything every time, but we are responsible for what happens here," he said.
In Ireland, a nation of 4 million, more than $1 billion has been paid out to some 13,000 victims. Victims' advocates say they are tired of hearing church apologies that contain no acknowledgment of how bishops under Vatican direction let child molesters operate with impunity.
"What we probably will get . . . are a lot of expressions of regret and sorrow and apology about the horrors of child abuse in the past. I've heard that so often now," said Marie Collins, one of Ireland's most prominent campaigners for victims' rights. "I want to hear apologies for the actions of the church hierarchy."