VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict said on Thursday the sexual abuse scandal shaking Roman Catholicism showed the Church needed to do penance for its sins, in a rare public reference by the pope to pedophilia in the priesthood.
"Now, under attack from the world which talks to us of our sins, we can see that being able to do penance is a grace and we see how necessary it is to do penance and thus recognize what is wrong in our lives," the said pope at a mass in the Vatican.
This involved "opening oneself up to forgiveness, preparing oneself for forgiveness, allowing oneself to be transformed," said the pope, whose last public utterance on the scandal was his letter to the Irish people, made public on March 20.
Benedict's focus on penance contrasts to senior churchmen's recent emphasis on defending the Church and the pope from what they portray as an campaign orchestrated by hostile news media.
The pope's personal preacher went as far as to compare the abuse scandal to anti-Semitism, drawing sharp criticism from some Jews and from victims of abuse by priests.
Pope Benedict also hit back at critics of the Church, portraying them as in the thrall of a conformist "dictatorship."
"Conformism which makes it obligatory to think and act like everyone else, and the subtle -- or not so subtle -- aggression toward the Church demonstrate how this conformism can really be a true dictatorship," said the pope.
Accusations that the Church mishandled and even covered up sexual abuse of children by priests in the United States, Ireland, Germany, Italy and elsewhere, have landed on Benedict's own doorstep, especially because in his previous job at the Vatican he was in charge of disciplining wayward priests.
The Vatican has denied any cover-up over the abuse of 200 deaf American boys by Reverend Lawrence Murphy from 1950 to 1974. The New York Times reported that the Vatican and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, were warned about Murphy but he was not defrocked.
The Vatican has also said the pope, when he was Archbishop of Munich, was not aware that a German priest who underwent therapy after sexually abusing children was later allowed to return to the ministry. The priest later abused children again.
With new cases surfacing almost daily, the Church has said the guilt of individuals who committed crimes, however heinous, cannot be shifted to the pope or the entire Church.
The 82-year-old pope did not speak out about the accusations in recent Easter Week ceremonies and even his latest comments refer only to the Church's unspecified "sins," without referring to the abuse scandals directly.
Reporting by Stephen Brown; Editing by Jon Boyle