ROME, Italy — As Catholics around the world prepare to celebrate Palm Sunday, a drumbeat of scandal in the church seems incessant and increasingly focused on the pope himself.
Consider that just this week Pope Benedict XVI issued an unprecedented apology to Irish Catholics for the church's handling of past allegations of sexual abuse; The New York Times carried a front-page story that the pope, when he served as cardinal, allowed a priest who had molested 200 deaf children to be reassigned to another post with more access to children; and the very powerful congregation of pontifical right known as the Legion of Christ essentially disowned its founder in the wake of yet another sexual abuse scandal.
While a growing number of Catholics demand that the pope accept responsibility for abuse cases unfolding from Germany to the United States, the Vatican launched a public relations campaign to blame the media for smearing the pope.
And with all this scandal swirling around the church, a small event in Rome almost went unnoticed.
Four American victims of priestly sex abuse were detained by police just outside St. Peter's Square while protesting what they call a "Vatican cover-up" of clergy pedophilia. The arrests reflect a growing voice of anger within the Catholic Church and the police response suggests a growing concern about security at the Vatican.
Barbara Blaine, Peter Isely, John Pilmaier and Barbara Dorris from the Chicago-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) had summoned journalists for a “sidewalk news conference” just a few meters from the unmarked border between Italy and the Vatican City, the smallest independent country in the world.
They were holding signs reading “Stop the Secrecy Now” and childhood photos that showed them at the age they were first abused.
They challenged the Vatican to open up the archives of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the arm of the Vatican that upholds matters of doctrine and the place of power from which the current pope, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, served Pope John Paul II for more than 20 years. Bishops from all over the world must report priests accused of sex crimes to that body.
The presence of large groups of people and the occasional protester is not an unusual site near the Vatican, so what happened next gives a sense of Italian authorities' concern that anger at the church could generate unrest.
After about 15 minutes, plainclothes Italian policemen approached the news conference and began asking attendees for identification. After about 20 minutes the police urged the activists to end their improvised press conference. Then the activists were taken into unmarked police cars and driven to a nearby police station, where they were held for two hours.
“They wouldn't tell us why, at first. In the end, they told us that it was illegal to hold an unauthorized press conference,” Dorris said. “They took our passports and didn't let us use our phones.” Their photos and signs were also confiscated.
Eventually, one of the group's members managed to text the organization's headquarters in Chicago, which Dorris said alerted the U.S. embassy in Rome. The activists were released shortly thereafter.
“We weren't really worried as we knew we didn't do anything wrong," Dorris said. "But of course every time police detain you, it worries you a bit."
“I am sure that if we had been praying Hail Mary's they wouldn't have stopped us, but they didn't like the message we were giving, that the pope was an accomplice in the cover-up,” she added.
After a deranged woman attacked the pope on Christmas night, security has tightened around the Vatican. Just last week, a man was briefly held and questioned after shouting during the pope's general audience in St. Peter's Square, calling for pro-choice politicians to be denied communion. Policemen say that they will keep their eyes open for more such events as the Vatican remains at the center of the news.
Though the Vatican has its own police force in addition to the famous Swiss Guards who protect the pope, the border between Italy and Vatican City, which runs along the edge of St. Peter's Square, is guarded by Italian policemen. The SNAP group was acting in Italian territory.
As the four were protesting, a few meters away, in the Vatican press office, cardinals and bishops were presenting to journalists the latest display of Turin's Holy Shroud. But the room was abuzz with talk of the latest allegations against the pope and his closest collaborator, Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone.
A New York Times story accuses them of having dithered over the punishment of a pedophile priest who had abused about 200 deaf boys. While local bishops wanted the priest defrocked, Ratzinger and Bertone — then heading the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — advised milder “pastoral measures” out of respect for the priest's old age.
“The goal of Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, was to keep this secret,” Isely told journalists at the protesters' press conference.
As scandal focuses more directly on the pope himself, the church has shifted from early calls for “zero tolerance” toward predator priests and cover-ups to an aggressively defensive stance.
The Vatican paper, L'Osservatore Romano, on Thursday rebuked recent media coverage of the scandal as an “ignoble attempt” to smear Pope Benedict “at any cost.”
“The prevalent tendency in the media is to ignore the facts and stretch interpretations with the aim of spreading the picture of the Catholic Church as the only one responsible for sexual abuse, something which does not correspond to reality,” the Vatican newspaper said.