In his strongest statement yet on the global sex abuse scandal, Pope Benedict XVI has admitted that the Catholic Church itself should bear the brunt of the blame for failing to tackle paedophile priests.
Speaking en route to Portugal at the start of a four-day visit yesterday, the pontiff made it clear that he believed the sins of the Church – and not outsiders – were responsible for the clerical abuse scandal.
"Today we see in a truly terrifying way that the greatest persecution of the Church doesn't come from enemies on the outside but is born from the sins within the Church," the 83-year-old said. "The Church needs to profoundly relearn penitence, accept purification, learn forgiveness but also justice."
His comments represent a sea-change in the approach to the ongoing child abuse scandals that have thrust the Roman Catholic Church into its worst crisis in living memory. When a torrent of past and present abuse accusations broke out across western Europe at the beginning of the year, key Vatican officials repeatedly accused the media, secularists and pro-gay/pro-choice lobbies of launching a hate campaign against Rome. Both the Pope and a top Vatican official initially described the new abuse scandals as chiachiericcio – "idle chatter" or "petty gossip".
Victims' groups were infuriated by the Vatican's response and accused the Pope of trying to gloss over the allegations coming out of Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland.
Over the past six weeks, however, the Pope has taken a much more active stance in combating the allegations and getting rid of shamed clerics. He has made a series of speeches, met people who were abused by priests and has accepted a number of high-profile resignations from bishops caught up in scandals.
The decision to speak about the abuse scandal so forcefully at the beginning of his Portugal trip may be an attempt to make sure his visit is not hijacked by the issue. His last overseas trip – to Malta – was dominated by a last-minute decision to meet in private with victims of clerical abuse.
Portugal, however, has so far remained relatively free of sex abuse allegations and the Vatican will be keen to keep it that way. During the visit the Pope will celebrate Mass for an estimated 500,000 people and visit the shrine of Our Lady of Fatima.