VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - When countries are threatened or institutions are in trouble, they look to their leaders to show the way out of the crisis.
The Vatican is in trouble, its moral authority sapped by mounting allegations of sexual abuse of children by priests in the past and cover ups by bishops supervising them.
But strong leadership from the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church is hard to discern. Pope Benedict rarely mentions the crisis and some aides have made things worse with comments that are mostly defensive and sometimes offend.
Catholic leaders argue the Church is not like secular bodies such as governments or companies, which is true. But it does live in the world and is judged by its legal standards when clergy commit crimes or the hierarchy covers them up.
George Abela, the Catholic president of the very Catholic island state of Malta, stressed this in his welcoming address to the visiting pope on Saturday when he spoke of priests who "unfortunately go astray".
"It is therefore the Church and even the State's duty to work hand in hand ... to curb cases of abuse so that justice will not only be done but seen to be done," he declared.
Benedict's fullest statement on the crisis, his March 20 letter to the Irish, expressed shame and remorse and sharply criticised Ireland's bishops over their handling of abuse cases. But he neither dismissed bishops nor proposed concrete reforms.
"There is nothing in this letter to suggest that any new vision of leadership in the Catholic Church exists," Maeve Lewis of the victims' group One in Four said in response.
Within the Vatican, Benedict actually has been the strongest voice calling for tougher treatment of the sexual abuse issue. He has apologised, most recently in his letter to the Irish, and met victims in the United States, Australia and Malta.
In Valletta on Sunday, he pledged the Church would do all it could to bring abusers to justice and protect youths in future.
But recent remarks by senior churchmen have given an inside glimpse into how hard it is to turn sincere words into decisive and visible action that would ensure justice is seen to be done.
Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn revealed the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wanted to probe an Austrian sex abuse scandal in 1995 but was blocked by rivals. He hinted opposition came from then Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano.
Former Vatican official Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos said the late Pope John Paul authorised him to write a letter in 2001 praising a French bishop for hiding a predator priest. The note caused an uproar when it was posted on the Internet last week.
Many Irish Catholics hoped Benedict would restructure the Church in Ireland and force several bishops to step down after two damning reports on sexual abuse and cover ups there last year.
His disappointed critics overlooked the mention in his letter of an "apostolic visitation", a Vatican probe into some Irish dioceses that could eventually lead to tough action.
But "eventually" can take a longer time at the Vatican, which famously thinks in centuries, than victims or loyal Catholics concerned for their Church's image want to see.
Benedict also is unlikely to introduce reforms that critical Catholics or observers outside the Church think are needed.
Some demands bandied about -- the pope should quit, scrap celibacy or allow women priests -- are not directly relevant to the problem. They will not happen or not happen for a very long time in a Church where tradition counts so much.
One leading critical Catholic, Swiss theologian Hans Kueng, has suggested bishops should work on a regional level to push through reforms blocked by the Vatican. That is also very hard to imagine in such a centralised Church.
Even calls for transparency in decision making or women in top level jobs go against the more traditional vision of the priesthood and the Church that Benedict has fostered in hope of restoring the reverence and authority he feels have been lost.
While reporters in several countries dig through documents for any links between Benedict and sex abuse cases years ago, some Catholic publications have highlighted a potentially explosive scandal that could soon batter the Vatican.
The National Catholic Reporter weekly in the United States has alleged the late Fr. Marcial Maciel Dellagado, founder of the Legion of Christ order, lavished money on senior Vatican officials to deflect any probes into his double life.
A close friend of Pope John Paul, the Mexican priest also had a past record of sexually abusing seminarians and had at least one and possibly several children by mistresses, it said.
Once elected pope, Benedict packed him off to "a life of penitence and prayer." But one of Maciel's staunchest defenders is the influential Cardinal Sodano, who on Easter Sunday urged the pope to ignore "the petty gossip of the moment".
"Media misses the real scandal," the London Catholic weekly The Tablet titled an editorial urging more focus on the Maciel scandal. The media have a right to probe Church scandals, it said, but may now be "looking entirely in the wrong direction."
(Editing by Michael Roddy)