Catholic priest accused of sexual abuse deepens crisis in Church

The Catholic Church in the Czech Republic is deep in crisis. The head of the Czech Catholic Church, Miloslav Vlk, has openly admitted that the Church is in turmoil, and the most recent case of a serious scandal involving a Catholic priest accused of sexually abusing his altar boys has only added fuel to the fire. A theology student in the Moravian city of Olomouc has filed criminal charges against the priest, Father Frantisek Merta, as well as the local archbishop, who he says tried to cover up the case. With more details on the case, here's Zuzana Smidova.

The allegations against Father Frantisek Merta, including sexual abuse of children and blackmail, date back to 1995, but he was only taken into custody last month. A priest sexually abusing his altar boys is scandalous enough, but what's caused controversy in the church are claims by a local theology student, Vaclav Novak, that Archbishop Graubner knew about Father Mertlik's activities for some time, and did nothing about it.

Archbishop Graubner met several of the boys involved after complaints were sent to the bishopric in Olomouc. As a result of that meeting, Father Mertlik was moved to a different parish. But there the abuse continued. Mr Novak learnt of the allegations from a friend, and began an investigation of his own. He met the Archbishop himself to ask him to file charges with the police, but didn't succeed. And so the student himself filed criminal charges against Father Mertlik as well as Archbishop Graubner for not taking appropriate action.

Both cases are currently under investigation. Should Father Mertlik be found guilty, he could face three years in prison. But Mr Novak's decision to file charges has not made his life easy. He says his own father has stopped speaking to him, and claims he was also told by a priest that he would suffer a painful death for exposing the case--evidence that many in the Church would rather keep such allegations quiet and the resolve the case themselves.

But that seems unlikely. At a time when a conference entitled 'Religious Liberty - Ideology of the State' is well underway in Prague, the media have seized on the story. The leading cleric and intellectual Tomas Halik says such scandals usually crystallise crises inside the Church, but here in the Czech Republic, he says, there is no such tradition of open discussion.

Author: Zuzana Šmídová
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