VATICAN CITY (AP) — Heads are starting to roll in the Catholic Church's child abuse scandal.
Weeks after Europe awoke to reports of clerical sex abuse in its own backyard, Pope Benedict XVI accepted the resignation Thursday of an Irish bishop who acknowledged failing to report abuse to police, while a German bishop also offered to step down.
The developments appeared to be part of a new strategy by the Vatican of getting rid of bishops who sought to protect the church from scandal rather than safeguard children.
Bishop James Moriarty of Kildare is the third Irish bishop to step down since December; two more Irish bishops have offered to resign and the pope is expected to agree. There are also mounting calls for the country's top prelate, Cardinal Sean Brady, to leave because of his handling of the case of a notorious child rapist.
The German prelate, Bishop Walter Mixa of Augsburg, was accused of hitting children decades ago when he was a priest, as well as financial irregularities at a Catholic orphanage where he served — allegations he denied for weeks before admitting he may have slapped children.
Although he was not accused of sexual abuse, the case against Mixa, a prominent member of Germany's Bishops Conference, focused more negative attention on a German church already shaken by scandal.
Hundreds of people have come forward in recent months, including in Benedict's native Germany, accusing priests of raping and abusing them while bishops and other church higher-ups turned a blind eye.
Victims advocates were not impressed with Thursday's actions, saying a handful of resignations of low-level bishops carries no moral weight when the senior Catholic leadership, including Benedict, has been complicit in cover-ups but has never taken responsibility.
“When both the pope and Cardinal Brady have been implicated in protecting sex offenders, does the resignation of individual bishops contribute to the protection of children?” asked Maeve Lewis, director of One in Four, an Irish lobbying group for child-abuse victims.
“When the most senior churchmen consistently deny responsibility for their failures, can we have any confidence that the culture of secrecy has changed?”
The most prominent resignation to date in the United States was Cardinal Bernard Law as Boston archbishop, who stepped down after the U.S. scandal exploded in 2002.
On Wednesday, Benedict promised “church action” to confront the scandal, and the Vatican has said it will do everything in its power to bring justice to abusive priests and implement “effective measures” to protect children.
The Vatican recently posted guidelines on its website instructing bishops to report abuse to police when civil laws require it. The Vatican insists that has long been church policy, though it had never been explicitly written before.
Victims groups have pressed for more, including a wholesale gutting of the ranks of complicit bishops and an admission from the Vatican that it encouraged a culture of secrecy that let abuse fester for decades unchecked.
While that may not be in the offing, clearly the pressure is having an effect.
On Wednesday, Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos bowed out from celebrating a Mass this weekend in Benedict's honor at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, the nation's largest Catholic church, after advocates for abuse victims objected to his presence there.
The cardinal wrote a letter in 2001 congratulating a French bishop for shielding a priest who was convicted and sentenced to 18 years for sexually abusing 11 minors. At the time, Castrillon Hoyos headed the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy.
The Survivors’Network for Those Accused By Priests, or SNAP, which had complained about Castrillon Hoyos’presence at the Mass, has been at the forefront in pushing for the Vatican to crack down on abuse and fire the bishops who enabled it.
Moriarty, the Irish bishop who resigned Thursday, said he was stepping down because he realized that “renewal must begin with accepting responsibility for the past.”
Moriarty, 73, acknowledged in December he didn't challenge the Dublin Archdiocese's practice of concealing child-abuse complaints from police. He served as an auxiliary Dublin bishop from 1991 to 2002.
“The truth is that the long struggle of survivors to be heard and respected by church authorities has revealed a culture within the church that many would simply describe as un-Christian,” Moriarty said in a statement. “This has been profoundly dispiriting for all who care about the church.”
Two auxiliary Dublin bishops, Eamonn Walsh and Ray Field, have also offered to resign; their resignations are expected to be accepted in coming weeks, two church officials told The Associated Press in Dublin.
All three bishops were identified last year in an Irish government-ordered investigation into decades of cover-ups of child-abusing clergy in the Dublin archdiocese. The report found that all bishops until 1996 colluded to protect scores of pedophile priests from criminal prosecution.
In March, the pope accepted the resignation of Irish Bishop John Magee, who was accused of shielding child-abusing priests from prosecution in his southwest Irish diocese of Cloyne.
In December, the pope accepted the resignation of Bishop Donal Murray of Limerick, who was accused of particularly poor handling of abuse allegations while serving as a bishop in Dublin.
Brady, Ireland's only cardinal, has said he would resign if he was found to have endangered children by his actions.
Benedict addressed the situation in the Irish church in a March 20 letter, in which he chastised Irish bishops for leadership failures and “gross errors of judgment” in handling abuse cases. But he put no blame on Rome.
In addition to the Dublin report, two other Irish government-ordered investigations have documented how thousands of Irish children suffered rape, molestation and other abuse by clergy in their parishes, boarding schools and orphanages.
The reports have faulted Rome for sending confusing messages to the Irish church about norms to be followed and for what it called the absence of a coherent set of canon laws and rules to apply in cases of abuse.