FATIMA, Portugal (Reuters) - Pope Benedict, still trying to come to grips with the Church’s sexual abuse scandal, prayed on Wednesday that his priests would be able to avoid the snares of the world and reject the temptations of the devil.
The 83-year-old pope made his comments shortly after arriving at this shrine city famous with Catholics around the world because the Church teaches that the Madonna appeared there and spoke to three poor shepherd children in 1917.
Tens of thousands of people braved a chill evening wind to see the pope on his second day in Portugal and prayed with him while looking at the spot where the visions are said to have occurred.
Later, in a church in the shrine complex, he prayed that priests would always live up to the duties of their “sublime vocation and not give in to our egoisms, to the snares of the world and the temptations of the devil.”
Speaking to reporters aboard the plane taking him to Lisbon on Tuesday, the pope made one of his most forthright comments on the sexual abuse scandal that has created turmoil in the church.
He said Church leaders had to acknowledged the “terrifying” truth that the sexual abuse scandal was the product of “sin within the Church” and that the Church had to repent for its sins and “accept purification.” Purification, at least in the form of rolling heads, has already started. Five bishops in Europe have resigned. One has admitted sexual abuse, another is under investigation and three have stepped down over their handling of abuse cases.
Pilgrims in the crowd to hear the pope were divided on how the sexual abuse scandal can affect a person’s faith.
“I believe that the scandals do have an impact on people’s faith, especially on trust for teachers,” said Domingos Silva, 43, a fisherman who walked 160 km (100 miles) to reach Fatima.
“I think Pope Benedict’s response to these outrageous crimes has been too modest and inefficient to prevent this crisis from reaching the scale it has,” he said.
A 70-year-old Portuguese nun said: “These scandals should not have an impact on people’s faith, but they can harm the Church’s reputation if this problem is not tackled properly.”
Fatima, which gets some 5 million visitors a year and where the pilgrim trade is the engine of the area’s economy, is the centerpiece of Benedict’s four-day visit to Portugal.
The Madonna, who is said to have appeared to the three shepherd children six times, gave them three messages.
The first two were revealed soon and concerned a vision of hell, the prediction of the outbreak of World War Two and a warning that Russia would “spread her errors” in the world.
The “third secret” intrigued the world for half a century before it was revealed, inspiring books, cults convinced that it predicted the end of the world, and even a hijacking.
In 2000, the Vatican revealed that the secret vision was a prediction of the 1981 assassination attempt on the late Pope John Paul on May 13, the same day of the first reported apparition in 1917.
John Paul, who was hit by several bullets fired by Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agca, believed the Madonna intervened to save his life. He had one of the bullets that pierced him welded into the crown of statue of the Madonna in the Fatima shrine.
Benedict told reporters on his plane on Tuesday he believed that the interpretation of the Third Secret could be enlarged to include the suffering the papacy and the Church would have to endure as a result of today’s sexual abuse crisis.
Writing by Philip Pullella; Editing by Jon Hemming