- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 11, 2010

LISBON (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI on Tuesday blamed the church’s own sins for the clerical abuse scandal — not a campaign mounted by outsiders — and called for profound purification to end what he called the “greatest persecution” the church has endured.

His strong comments placed the blame for the crisis squarely on the sins of pedophile priests, repudiating the Vatican’s initial response to the scandal, in which it blamed the media as well as pro-choice and pro-gay marriage advocates for mounting a campaign against the church and the pope.

Speaking en route to Portugal, Benedict said the Catholic Church always has suffered from problems of its own making but “today we see it in a truly terrifying way.”

“The greatest persecution of the church doesn’t come from enemies on the outside but is born from the sins within the church,” the pontiff said. “The church needs to profoundly relearn penitence, accept purification, learn forgiveness but also justice.”

Benedict was responding to journalists’ questions, submitted in advance, aboard the papal plane as he flew to Portugal. His four-day visit will take him from Lisbon to the famed Fatima shrine to Portugal’s second city, Porto.

It is not known whether Benedict would make further remarks about the scandal during the trip, but there have been no reported cases of sex abuse in Portugal, unlike in Malta, where Benedict met with abuse victims on a trip there last month.

Despite the Vatican’s initial defensive response to hundreds of clerical abuse reports in Europe, Benedict has called for penance and promised that the church would take action to protect children and make abusive priests face justice.

As far as the church’s purification is concerned, Benedict already has started cleaning house, accepting the resignations of a few bishops in recent weeks who either admitted they molested youngsters or covered up for priests who did.

Just last week, the pope took control of the conservative Legionaries of Christ order after it was discredited by revelations that its founder fathered at least one child and sexually abused young seminarians.

More resignations have been tendered by bishops, and the Vatican official in charge of handling sex abuse cases has said he would not be surprised if the pope asks for other resignations.

While Portugal has not experienced the surge in reports of abuse by priests that has emerged in other European countries, including Benedict’s native Germany, it is facing the same problems as other European nations in terms of the financial crisis.

Portugal’s economic growth has been pedestrian for years, averaging less than 1 percent from 2001 to 2008, and the global downturn brought a steep contraction of 2.7 percent last year. A three-year austerity plan to ease the country’s crippling debt load is expected to bring greater hardship to a people already feeling the pinch.

The pope said the crisis demonstrated the need for greater moral responsibility in running the global financial system and noted that he outlined his vision for a more ethical financial system in his 2009 encyclical “Charity in Truth.”

“We must confess that the Catholic faith, the Christian faith is often very individualistic and has left concrete economic things to the world … without realizing that there was an implicit global responsibility,” Benedict said.

He called for greater dialogue within the financial system with an eye to ethical considerations.

Similarly, the pontiff called for greater dialogue between the religious and secular worlds. As has been the case with much of Western Europe, Portugal has drifted away from church teaching on key issues.

Portugal’s center-left Socialist government passed a law in 2007 allowing abortion. In 2008, it introduced a law allowing a judge to grant a divorce even if one of the spouses is opposed.

In January, Parliament passed a bill seeking to make the country the sixth in Europe allowing same-sex couples to marry. Conservative President Anibal Cavaco Silvo now has to decide whether to veto or ratify the bill.

Benedict praised Portugal’s Catholic heritage, saying it was a “great force of faith” in spreading Catholicism around the globe, from Brazil to Africa, during colonial times. But he acknowledged that secularism had taken hold.

“We must find the synthesis of dialogue,” Benedict said.

Portugal is nearly 90 percent Catholic, but only about 2 million of the country’s 10.6 million people describe themselves as practicing Catholics.

Religious sentiment, however, runs deep. At least 500,000 people are expected to attend the pope’s Mass in Fatima on May 13, the anniversary of the day in 1917 when three Portuguese shepherd children reported having visions of the Virgin Mary.

The Fatima stop will be at the heart of the pope’s pilgrimage. Benedict also will celebrate a Mass in Porto before returning to the Vatican on Friday.

Associated Press writer Barry Hatton in Lisbon contributed to this report.

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