VATICAN CITY Gay groups and politicians condemned Pope Benedict's number two on Wednesday for calling homosexuality a "pathology" and linking it directly to sexual abuse of children.
The comments made by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone during a visit to Chile, and the controversy they caused, were splashed on mainstream Italian newspapers on Wednesday.
The French foreign ministry and some Catholic blogs that support the pope also condemned the cardinal's remarks.
As the scandal over sexual abuse of children by priests has spread, some in the Catholic Church have called for a review of the Church's rule that prohibits priests from marrying, saying marriage would allow priests to enjoy a healthy sex life.
Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, who is sometimes called the "deputy pope," told a news conference in Santiago on Monday:
"Many psychologists and psychiatrists have shown that there is no link between celibacy and pedophilia, but many others have shown, I have recently been told, that there is a relationship between homosexuality and pedophilia."
"This pathology is one that touches all categories of people, and priests to a lesser degree in percentage terms," he said. "The behavior of the priests in this case, the negative behavior, is very serious, is scandalous."
Gay rights activists reacted with derision and outrage.
"This is a scientific absurdity. The World Health Organization calls homosexuality a variation of human behavior. It is pedophilia that is a pathology, a crime, not homosexuality," said Franco Grillini, a former parliamentarian who was at the vanguard of Italy's gay rights movement.
"Because they have their own problems with the abuse crisis and don't know how to handle it, they are trying to pass their 'cross' from their shoulders on to ours," Grillini told Reuters.
CATHOLIC BLOG CRITICISES
The French foreign ministry called it an "unacceptable linkage that we condemn."
Some pro-Vatican Catholic blogs said more controversy was the last thing the Vatican needed.
"Pedophilia and homosexuality: Bertone trips up -- again -- on gays," read a post in the Italian-language "Blog of the Friends of Pope Ratzinger."
It said the pope might now have to "clean up the mess made by his right-hand man."
Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi issued a statement in which he tried to douse the fire caused by the latest mishap.
He said Church leaders were not trying to make "general affirmations of a specific psychological nature" and offered Church statistics that showed that two-thirds of incidents of abuse of adolescents by priests involved homosexual priests.
A front-page editorial in Rome's left-leaning La Repubblica newspaper titled "The Confusion in the Church" said Bertone's comments would end up causing the Church more "harm to itself, not homosexuals."
Bertone was also criticized by Alessandra Mussolini, a right-wing parliamentarian whose grandfather, wartime Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, sent gays into internal exile.
"You can't link sexual orientation to pedophilia ... this link risks becoming dangerously misleading for the protection of children," Mussolini said.
ArciLesbica, Italy's main lesbian rights group, accused the Vatican of using "violent and deceptive statements" to divert attention from its abuse scandal and said Italian parents should consider removing their children from Church-run institutions.
The pope did not make any direct reference to the crisis facing the Church during his weekly general audience.
He may address the issue when he visits Malta this weekend. Ten Maltese men who are suing three priests for alleged child abuse have requested a private meeting with the pope.
(Writing by Philip Pullella; additional reporting by Crispian Balmer in Paris and Simon Gardner in Santiago; editing by Tim Pearce)