NEW YORK -- Leading advocates for victims of clergy sex abuse are directing their criticism beyond US Roman Catholic bishops to the highest levels of the church. They are now accusing Vatican leaders of hiding the scope of the molestation problem worldwide, and they are demanding change.
Many say complaints of a coverup in Rome are baseless, and are meant only to gain advantage in the hundreds of pending abuse cases against US dioceses. Millions of dollars in settlements may be at stake.
But advocates say the revelations that many bishops sheltered offenders in their own dioceses are one small part of what they call systemic wrongdoing.
"The Vatican has been vitally involved," said Richard Sipe, a psychologist and a former monk who researches sexuality in the priesthood and who advises people who are suing dioceses. "The Vatican is in the know and has documented its knowledge throughout the centuries."
Sipe, the Rev. Thomas Doyle, and a former monk, Patrick Wall, all well-known advocates for victims, have compiled a document of more than 300 pages asserting that Vatican officials have known about sex abuse by priests back to the fourth century, and that they have consistently kept quiet about it.
"It is a calculated coverup of epic proportions," the authors wrote.
Jason Berry, whose reporting in the 1980s drew national attention to clergy sex abuse, published a book this year entitled, "Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II."
Coauthored with Gerald Renner, it says Vatican leaders blocked an inquiry into sex abuse claims against the Rev. Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, a conservative order strongly favored by Pope John Paul II. Maciel says he is innocent.
Another sex abuse lawsuit was filed last month naming the Vatican as a defendant, this time in Kentucky. Separately, a Minneapolis lawyer who specializes in clergy abuse lawsuits, Jeff Anderson, has filed two suits that target officials in Rome.
No one has ever won a civil case against the the Vatican over molestation. Some legal specialists have dismissed such lawsuits as publicity stunts. The Vatican is a sovereign nation, and therefore has diplomatic immunity from foreign lawsuits.
But the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America and a Vatican specialist, said it was unfair to call the entire church hierarchy out of touch -- or to say the Vatican is legally liable for priests abroad who victimized children.
"It's too easy to just say, 'The Vatican doesn't get it,' " Reese said. "The Vatican has got lots of canon lawyers who are concerned about proper procedures and due process and being considered innocent until proven guilty. And sometimes that's seen as stonewalling when it's simply trying to make sure everyone's rights are protected. It's complicated."
But Berry and Renner say the Maciel case points to the need for an independent church court system.
The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church's orthodoxy watchdog, checks abuse claims against priests worldwide. Bishops arrange church trials for accused priests. Bishops answer only to the pope, the advocates note.
"There is no internal mechanism of accountability," Berry said. "There is no separation of powers, and the Vatican will not allow lay people to have any say in removing bishops."
The Rev. Joseph Fessio, president of Ignatius Press and chancellor of Ave Maria University in Florida, said the church has the necessary tools to deal with the crisis: its teachings on sexuality.
Fessio is among many conservative Catholics who say the scandal would not have occurred if Vatican officials and US bishops had properly enforced church beliefs.
"The reform that's needed is not of structures," Fessio said. "It's a needed reform of the human heart."