11 May 2010
LISBON, Portugal – Pope Benedict XVI on Tuesday blamed the church’s own sins for the clerical abuse scandal — not a campaign mounted by outsiders — and called for profound purification to end what he called the “greatest persecution” the church has endured.
His strong comments placed responsibility for the crisis squarely on the sins of pedophile priests, repudiating the Vatican’s initial response to the scandal in which it blamed the media as well as pro-choice and pro-gay marriage advocates for mounting what it called a campaign against the church and the pope.
Speaking en route to Portugal, Benedict said the Catholic church had always suffered from problems of its own making but that “today we see it in a truly terrifying way.”
“The greatest persecution of the church doesn’t come from enemies on the outside but is born from the sins within the church,” the pontiff said. “The church needs to profoundly relearn penitence, accept purification, learn forgiveness but also justice.”
Benedict was responding to journalists’ questions, submitted in advance, aboard the papal plane as he flew to Portugal. His four-day visit will take him from Lisbon to the famed Fatima shrine to Portugal’s second city, Porto.
It is not known whether Benedict would make further remarks about the scandal during the trip, but there have been no reported cases of sex abuse in Portugal, unlike in Malta, where Benedict met with abuse victims on a trip there last month.
Despite the Vatican’s initial, defensive response to hundreds of clerical abuse reports in Europe, Benedict has promised that the church would take action to protect children and make abusive priests face justice. He has already started cleaning house, accepting the resignations of a few bishops who either admitted they molested youngsters or covered up for priests who did.
Church bells rang out as the pontiff proceeded through Lisbon from the airport in his popemobile. Several thousand people lined the streets on a rainy day, some shouting, “Viva o Papa!” Some stretches of the route were thinly attended, however.
While Portugal has not experienced the surge in reports of abuse by priests that has emerged in other European countries, including Benedict’s native Germany, it is facing similar financial problems as other European nations.
Portugal’s economic growth has been pedestrian for years, averaging less than 1 percent between 2001-2008, and the global downturn brought a steep contraction of 2.7 percent last year. A three-year austerity plan to ease the country’s crippling debt load is expected to bring greater hardship to a people already feeling the pinch.
Portuguese President Anibal Cavaco Silva referred to the financial crisis in his speech greeting Benedict at Lisbon’s airport, saying the pontiff was visiting at a time of uncertainty that had tested Portugal’s strength as a community.
“In these times, men require someone bearing a message of hope to meet their thirst for justice and solidarity,” he told the pontiff.
Benedict, for his part, said the crisis demonstrated the need for greater moral responsibility in running the global financial system and noted that he outlined his vision for more ethics in finance in his 2009 encyclical “Charity in Truth.”
He called for greater dialogue within the financial system about ethical considerations.
Similarly, the pontiff called for greater dialogue between faith and the secular world. Portugal is nearly 90 percent Catholic, but only around 2 million of the country’s 10.6 million people describe themselves as practicing their faith.
As has been the case with much of western Europe, Portugal has also drifted away from church teaching on key issues.
Portugal’s center-left Socialist government passed a law in 2007 allowing abortion. In 2008, it introduced a law allowing a judge to grant a divorce even if one spouse is opposed. In January, Parliament passed a bill seeking to make the country the sixth in Europe allowing same-sex couples to marry. Cavaco Silvo now has to decide whether to veto or ratify that bill.
In his airport remarks, Benedict sharply criticized Portugal’s abortion law, saying public officials must give “essential consideration” to issues that affect human life.
“The point at issue is not an ethical confrontation between a secular and religious system, so much as a question about the meaning that we give to our freedom,” he said.
Benedict also praised Portugal’s Catholic heritage, saying it was a “great force of faith” in spreading Catholicism around the globe, from Brazil to Africa, during colonial times.
Despite the country’s increasingly secular bent, religious sentiment runs deep. At least 500,000 people are expected to attend the pope’s Mass in Fatima on May 13, the anniversary of the day in 1917 when three Portuguese shepherd children reported having visions of the Virgin Mary.
Associated Press Writer Barry Hatton in Lisbon contributed to this report.