In his strongest statement yet on the global sex abuse scandal sweeping the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI today admitted that 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, 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 significant sea-change in the Vatican’s approach to the ongoing child abuse scandals that have thrust the Roman Catholic Church into one of its worst crises in living memory.
When historical and current day abuse accusations broke out en masse 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, which is usually translated as "idle chatter" or “petty gossip”. Victim groups were infuriated by the Vatican’s response and accused the Pope of trying to gloss over the reams of allegations coming out of countries such as Germany, Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland.
Over the past six weeks, however, the Pope has taken a much more proactive stance in combating the abuse allegations and getting rid of shamed clerics. He has made a series of speeches, met victims of abuse during his last papal visit to Malta and has accepted a number of high profile resignations from bishops caught up in abuse scandals.
The Pope’s decision to speak about the abuse scandal so forcefully at the beginning of his trip may be an attempt to make sure his visit is not hijacked by the issue. His trip to Malta became 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 try and keep it that way.
The country itself has become increasingly secular over the last few decades but Catholicism still plays a prominent role. During the four day visit the Pope will hold a mass for an estimated crowd of 500,000 and visit the shrine of Our Lady of Fatima, one of the most popular Marian shrines in the world.
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