A former trainee priest who has accused the founder of an influential Catholic order of sexual abuse said today that new Pope Benedict XVI deliberately shelved a probe into his claims for six years.
Jose Barba is one of eight ex-members of the Rome-based Legion of Christ, most of them Mexicans, who accuse the order's founder, Marcial Maciel, of sexually abusing them from the 1940s through the 1960s.
The allegations are too old to be investigated under criminal law but the nine brought a suit against Maciel, 84, under the Vatican's canonical law in 1998.
The case was filed at the Church's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who was elected Pope Benedict XVI today.
Barba, spokesman for the accusers, says the claims were hushed up because Maciel and his ultra-conservative order were close to Pope John Paul II.
"The question is: Was Cardinal Ratzinger totally and solely responsible? I think that to a great extent he was because it was his department," said Barba, now 68 and a professor of Latin American studies at Mexico City's ITAM university.
Maciel stepped down as leader of the Legion of Christ, citing his age, a month after the Vatican finally announced last December it would take up the abuse allegations.
Barba alleged that the Church's willingness to probe the issue could have been an attempt by Ratzinger to clean up the matter to improve his chances of becoming pope.
"It would have been very embarrassing for the cardinal to turn up at the conclave with the reputation of someone who had covered up a scandal," the Mexican said.
Maciel, who lives in Rome, has denied the abuse charges.
"The Legion of Christ struggles to express how deeply we regret that the accusers attempt to tar the Vatican, Cardinal Ratzinger, and even Pope John Paul II with the stain of these false allegations," it said in a statement that has been on its Web site for three years.
Founded in 1941, the order has around 500 priests and 2,500 seminarians in some 20 countries including Spain and the United States.
A Mexican bishop handed Ratzinger a letter in 2000 outlining allegations of abuse by Maciel against a Spanish priest, said Barba, who accuses the Legion founder of molesting him in Rome in the 1950s.
Barba said that when he handed another letter to a Vatican official in 2002 detailing alleged abuses, he was told that the missive would be forwarded to Ratzinger.
Maciel was warmly praised by John Paul on the 60th anniversary of his ordination last November but the probe against him was announced just days later.