VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict begged forgiveness from God and victims of child sexual abuse by priests on Friday and vowed that the Catholic Church would do everything in its power to ensure that it never happens again.
Benedict made his comments, some of his clearest ever about the scandal that has swept the Church around the world, during a homily in St Peter’s Square to conclude the Roman Catholic Church’s “Year of the Priest” celebrations.
Wearing white and gold vestments as he spoke to some 15,000 priests, Benedict said the year that was to have celebrated the priesthood had been marred because “the sins of priests came to light, particularly the abuse of the little ones.”
“We too insistently beg forgiveness from God and from the persons involved, while promising to do everything possible to ensure that such abuse will never occur again,” he said.
Hundreds of cases of sexual and physical abuse of youths by priests in recent decades have come to light in Europe and the United States as investigations encourage long-silent victims to finally go public with their complaints.
A group for victims said the pope had not gone far enough.
“These are strong words but not strong actions,” said Peter Isely of the U.S.-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), whose leaders came to Rome for the event.
“The pope should have announced an absolute zero tolerance approach to priests that abuse around the world, ensuring that they will be immediately removed from priesthood. This is a much more important move than showing remorse,” he told Reuters.
Benedict himself has been accused of turning a blind eye in 1980, when he was archbishop of Munich in his native Germany, to the case of a priest who was sent there for therapy after sexually abusing children and soon transferred to parish work.
The Vatican has said a subordinate took that decision.
In his sermon, the 83-year-old pope, who met abuse victims in the United States, Australia and Malta and has decried “sin within the Church,” also promised that the Church would enact stronger controls on choosing men who enter the priesthood.
“We will do everything we can to weigh the authenticity of their vocation...,” he said.
Victim groups said they were also disappointed that the pope did not mention the responsibility of bishops, who have been accused of moving predator priests from parish to parish instead of defrocking them or turning them over to the law.
“The pope can’t put priests who commit such crimes in jail, and that is what the Church needs to address,” Isely said.
In his sermon, Benedict said the worldwide community of Catholic priests, numbering more than 400,000, should see the sexual abuse scandal and its repercussions as “a summons to purification” for themselves and for the entire Church.
Five bishops in Europe have already resigned. One has admitted sexual abuse, another is under investigation and three have stepped down over their handling of abuse cases.
The scandal has hit Catholic communities in the United States, Ireland, Belgium and Germany particularly hard.
A poll two months ago in Germany showed that a majority of people had lost confidence in the Church and about a quarter of the country’s Catholics are considering quitting.
Child abuse scandals in the United States about eight years ago wreaked havoc on the reputation and finances of the U.S. Catholic Church, which paid some $2 billion in settlements and several dioceses declared bankruptcy.
Writing by Philip Pullella; Additional reporting by Ella Ide; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer