Pope Benedict XVI on Tuesday voiced his strongest words yet against sex abuse by priests, blaming "sin within the church" as the reason why the world's largest Christian denomination needs to "re-learn penance" and "accept purification."
In answers to three questions posed by reporters on board a flight to Portugal — where the pope is to celebrate the 93rd anniversary of the Marian apparitions at Fatima — the pontiff accepted more responsibility for a crisis that has seeped from the United States into European dioceses.
"Attacks against the pope or the church do not only come from outside; rather the sufferings of the church come from within, from the sins that exist in the church," he said.
"This, too, has always been known, but today we see it in a really terrifying way: The greatest persecution of the church does not come from enemies on the outside, but is born from the sin within the church, the church therefore has a deep need to re-learn penance, to accept purification, to learn on one hand forgiveness but also the need for justice," he told reporters. "Forgiveness is not a substitute for justice. In one word we have to re-learn these essentials: conversion, prayer, penance, and the theological virtues."
The pope did not specify where "from within the church" its sins resided nor what sort of penance or justice he has in mind. Because the pope was handed questions several days in advance, his answering a query about the abuse crisis told observers he is taking some initiative in addressing the problem.
"His language does reflect an advance," said Jason Berry, author of "Vows of Silence" (2004) and "Lead Us Not Into Temptation" (1992), two books on the sex-abuse crisis. "He's acknowledging an internal crisis and he used the word 'justice,' which has to translate into church justice."
Referring to recent revelations of widespread sexual abuse committed by the Rev. Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Mr. Berry suggested the pope's cleanup has only just begun.
"With all due respect," he said, "I don't see how he can resolve this crisis without getting rid of Cardinal [Angelo] Sodano, who protected Maciel and stands as the largest symbol of the coverup."
Cardinal Sodano, dean of the Vatican's College of Cardinals, was accused last weekend by Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna of blocking a 1995 Vatican inquiry into sex-abuse accusations against Vienna's then-Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, who died in 2003. Cardinal Sodano has also been criticized for Easter Sunday remarks that dismissed international criticism of the church as "idle gossip."
Thus, the pope's comments Tuesday were seen as a reframing of the crisis.
"The important line in this is the one on forgiveness," said Nicholas Cafardi, former chairman of the U.S. bishops' National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Youth.
"In the past, priestly pedophiles … asked for forgiveness and they were forgiven but that was not justice. Justice would have been to put them through a penal process and to punish them for the harm they caused those youngsters." Instead, priests were subjected to "fraternal correction," which canon law mandated as a pastoral — as opposed to a judicial — solution.
"But that was not justice for the victims," Mr. Cafardi said. "I disagree with people who say he has not been on top of this. I think he has been. [Tuesday's quotes] were more direct and clear, but they are consistent with his prior positions."
In recent months, five bishops from Ireland, Germany and Belgium have resigned either over their handling of the crisis or because they have been charged with abusing minors.
"The fact he has accepted those resignations is important," Mr. Cafardi said. "Remember, when Cardinal [Bernard] Law tried to resign the first two times, that was not accepted." Cardinal Law was heading the Boston Archdiocese when clerical abuse in his archdiocese became national front-page news. He eventually resigned in late 2002.
Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), was not impressed.
"The pope does a disservice to children, victims, and Catholics by trying to perpetrate the myth that the church is somehow a 'victim' in its ongoing child sex abuse and cover up crisis," she said in a statement. "Many are tiring of hearing about his 'strong comments.' They want to see strong action. … When will the pope begin at least disclosing predator priests and disciplining complicit bishops, so that children will be safer, truth will be revealed and justice will done?"