Vatican City - The Vatican's top bioethics official on Monday dismissed calls for his resignation following an uproar over his defense of doctors who aborted the twin fetuses of a 9-year-old child who was raped by her stepfather.
Monsignor Renato Fisichella told The Associated Press he refused to respond to five members of the Vatican's Pontifical Academy for Life who questioned his suitability to lead the institution.
Fisichella wrote an article in the Vatican's newspaper in March saying the Brazilian doctors didn't deserve excommunication as mandated by church law because they were saving the girl's life. The call for mercy sparked heated criticism from some academy members who said it implied the Vatican was opening up to so-called "therapeutic abortion" to save the mother's life.
To quiet their complaints, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a clarification in July, repeating the Catholic Church's firm opposition to abortion and saying Fisichella's words had been "manipulated and exploited."
But that didn't stem the criticism, which boiled up again last week when the academy - an advisory body to the pope made up of lay and religious bioethics experts from around the world - held its annual plenary assembly.
Five members of the 145-odd member body issued a statement Feb. 16, at the end of the closed meeting, again questioning Fisichella's suitability for office.
They took him to task for his opening speech, in which he described the criticism over his article as being motivated by spite, according to participants. And they accused him of manipulating the Vatican's July clarification to make it appear that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had vindicated his original article.
"Far from creating unity and genuine harmony in the academy, Archbishop Fisichella's address ... had the effect of confirming in the minds of many academicians the impression that we are being led by an ecclesiastic who does not understand what absolute respect for innocent human lives entails," the five wrote.
"This is an absurd state of affairs in a Pontifical Academy for Life but one which can be rectified only by those who are responsible for his appointment as president."
Pope Benedict XVI appointed Fisichella to the post in 2008.
One of the signatories, Luke Gormally, the former director of Britain's Linacre Centre for Healthcare Ethics, said he and the other four wrote the letter to set the record straight after reading comments by Fisichella saying the matter had been resolved.
"When we saw that Fisichella had given an interview ... more or less saying that everything was sweetness and light, we thought that this was in the nature of disinformation," Gormally told The Associated Press.
Not only did Fisichella refuse to retract his March article, "We were accused of spite. It was quite extraordinary," Gormally said.
Reached Monday at home, Fisichella refused to respond to the call for resignation and dismissed the matter entirely, saying: "I won't respond to these people. Too much space already has been given to them."
In his March 15 article in L'Osservatore Romano, Fisichella stressed that abortion is always "bad." But he said the quick and public proclamation of excommunication of the Brazilian bishops "unfortunately hurts the credibility of our teaching, which appears in the eyes of many as insensitive, incomprehensible and lacking mercy."
He argued for respect for the Catholic doctors' wrenching decision.
Writing as if he were addressing the girl, Fisichella said: "There are others who merit excommunication and our pardon, not those who have allowed you to live and have helped you to regain hope and trust."
Monsignor Michel Schooyans, an academy member and emeritus professor at Belgium's Louvain University, said Fisischella had fallen into the trap of "bogus compassion," in supporting the doctors.
"Instead of expressing compassion for the young and innocent victims, 'compassion' is extended to those who have inflicted immense harm on these victims,'" Schooyans wrote last month.
Schooyans didn't attend last week's meeting but signed the statement calling for Fisichella's resignation.