DUBLIN -- Pope Benedict XVI addresses Ireland on 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, followed by 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 battered image, Benedict's message -- his first pastoral letter on child abuse in the church -- must break his silence on the role of the Catholic hierarchy in shielding pedophile clergy from prosecution.
That includes abuses committed decades ago under the pope's watch, when he was Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger of Munich, as well as the pontiff's role in hushing up the scandals.
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 cases of child abuse to Vatican authorities under strict secrecy; it made no mention of reporting crimes to police.
"Is it not time for Pope Benedict XVI himself to acknowledge his share of responsibility?" said the Rev. Hans Kung, a Swiss priest and dissident Catholic theologian.
"Honesty demands that Joseph Ratzinger himself, the man who for decades has been principally responsible for the worldwide cover-up, at last pronounce his own mea culpa," Kung said.
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.
These include the Rev. Peter Hullermann, who was already suspected of abusing boys in the western German city of Essen when Ratzinger approved his transfer to Munich for treatment in 1980.
There, Hullermann was allowed contact with children almost immediately after his therapy began. He was again accused of molesting boys and was convicted in 1986 of sexual abuse. He was suspended this week for ignoring a 2008 church order not to work with youths.
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's letter to Ireland "will of course affect us. The pope always speaks for everyone. It is not ... for specific groups or countries. That word will also be important for us."
Marx said the pope should not be expected to take responsibility for abuses committed 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 the United States, where several dioceses have been driven to bankruptcy amid abuse lawsuits, activists called on the pope to be candid about his own failings -- and for bishops to be held accountable.
"So far the church hierarchy has been very short on accountability. They've had to be pushed to come clean about their responsibility for anything," said Dan Bartley, president of Voice of the Faithful, a Catholic lay group that lobbies for reform within the church. "He needs to call for any bishops involved in the Irish crisis to resign. But unfortunately we're not expecting that."
Ray Flynn, former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, said the pope has been slow to speak publicly about the church's abuse crisis because he lacks media savvy, not because he wants to stonewall critics or doesn't care about victims. "He is a very quiet, unassuming, non-pretentious man," Flynn said.
"He's got to be transparent, forthcoming, right out front and point the finger where the blame is," he added. "I think the truth will set you free, and that's what people want."
No country has been harder hit by the child-abuse scandals than Ireland, a nation of 4 million that has paid out more than $1 billion 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 -- I hope I'm wrong -- 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."
Collins, 63, was repeatedly raped by a Dublin priest, Paul McGennis, while in a children's hospital in 1960. Irish bishops knew at the time about McGennis' pedophilia -- even confiscating his collection of nude photos of children -- but didn't bar him from the priesthood until 1997, shortly before his conviction for abusing Collins and another girl.
Such cover-ups have undermined much of the Irish hierarchy including its leader, Cardinal Sean Brady.
On St. Patrick's Day, Brady apologized for his failure to tell police about evidence he gathered in 1975 from two altar boys molested by the Rev. Brendan Smyth. Smyth kept abusing children until he was finally convicted in 1994. The scandal triggered the collapse of the Irish government.
Three Irish government-ordered investigations from 2005 to 2009 documented the abuse of thousands of Irish children by priests in their parishes and by nuns and brothers in boarding schools and orphanages. Irish bishops did not report a single case to police until 1996 after victims began to sue the church.
Some church scholars say Benedict has sought to encourage a church crackdown on abusers and are hopeful that Saturday's message might offer a fresh start for the church worldwide.
"If we do take serious and proper steps, the house can be cleaned and the church will improve for it," said the Rev. John Wauck, a commentator on Vatican affairs.
"I think that's something to look forward to with hope. I imagine the letter will be quite hopeful and forward-looking," Wauck said.
Associated Press Writers Nicole Winfield in Rome and Melissa Eddy in Berlin contributed to this report.