LISBON, Portugal – In his most thorough admission of the church’s guilt in the clerical sex abuse scandal, Pope Benedict XVI said Tuesday the greatest persecution of the institution “is born from the sins within the church,” and not from a campaign by outsiders.
The pontiff said the Catholic church has always been tormented by problems of its own making – a tendency that is being witnessed today “in a truly terrifying way.”
“The church needs to profoundly relearn penitence, accept purification, learn forgiveness but also justice,” he said.
“Forgiveness cannot substitute justice,” he said.
Benedict was responding to journalists’ questions, submitted in advance, aboard the papal plane as he flew to Portugal for a four-day visit.
In a shift from the Vatican’s initial claim that the church was the victim of a campaign by the media and abortion rights and pro-gay marriage groups, Benedict said: “The greatest persecution of the church doesn’t come from enemies on the outside but is born from the sins within the church.”
Previously, he has taken to task the abusers themselves and, in the case of Ireland, the bishops who failed to stop them.
Benedict has promised that the church would take action to protect children and make abusive priests face justice. He has started cleaning house, accepting the resignations of a few bishops who either admitted they molested youngsters or covered up for priests who did.
Critics are demanding more. They recall that while Benedict has scolded his church and accepted some bishops’ resignations, none of them has been actively punished or defrocked, even those who admitted molesting children.
“Many are tiring of hearing about his ‘strong comments.’ They want to see strong action,” said David Clohessy, director of the main U.S. victims’ group, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.