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Pope Calls Priestly Pedophilia Worst Form of Evil

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope John Paul (news - web sites) II, breaking his silence on a wave of child sex scandals in the United States involving Roman Catholic clerics, said on Thursday that Catholic priests abusing minors were carrying out the worst form of evil possible.

Writing in his yearly letter to priests, the pope said recent grave scandals had cast a "dark shadow of suspicion" over the entire church and on honest priests the world over.

"As priests, we are personally and profoundly afflicted by the sins of some of our brothers who have betrayed the grace of ordination in succumbing even to the most grievous forms of the mystery of evil at work in the world," he said.

The pope had spoken out against pedophilia before, but his words were eagerly awaited in the United States, where the scandals have touched two of the most senior cardinals -- Bernard Law of Boston and Edward Egan of New York.

Both men, accused by critics of mishandling abuse cases, were appointed by the pope, who is said to hold them in high esteem.

In a statement issued in Boston, Law said he welcomed the Pope's comments.

"I am most grateful to the Holy Father for this reflection on the Priest as minister of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and for the sensitive and helpful way he addresses the situation that has so absorbed us," Law said.

The Archdiocese of New York had no immediate comment.

This time, the pontiff addressed the issue in one paragraph of the 22-page letter and did not use the word pedophilia.

But Vatican (news - web sites) sources said the comments were a clear response to demands that he speak out about scandals, particularly in the United States, where the church is accused of concealing them.

The pope said the Catholic Church wanted to show its concern for victims and to "respond in truth and justice to each of these painful situations."

"Grave scandal is caused, with the result that a dark shadow of suspicion is cast over all the fine priests who perform their ministry with honesty and integrity and often with heroic self-sacrifice," he said.

The pope said priests had to overcome human weakness by committing themselves more fully to the search for holiness.

The scandal in the United States has taken on such proportions that even President Bush (news - web sites) weighed in recently, saying he was confident the church would "clean up its business and do the right thing."

There have been calls for Law and Egan to resign, but a Vatican cardinal presenting the pope's letter said the pontiff was "supportive" of church leaders caught up in the scandal.

Church sources said critics of how the church has handled the scandal were bound to be disappointed by the indirect nature of the pope's condemnation.

Some had called on the Vatican to fire cardinals who had been touched by the scandal or to start its own investigation.


Instead of answering eight specific questions put by reporters about the church and pedophilia at a Vatican news conference, Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, head of the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy, read a two-page statement.

He said sexual abuse was the product of modern culture, where sexual liberties had influenced priests too. The cardinal said the church had not neglected priestly pedophilia.

Hoyos refused to answer specific questions on the United States, but pointed to a U.S. study saying about 3 percent of U.S. priests had a tendency to abuse minors and 0.3 percent actually did so.

The Boston Archdiocese faces claims by as many as 200 plaintiffs who have accused defrocked priest John Geoghan and other Boston-area priests of sexually abusing them. It has agreed to spend $15 million to $30 million to settle claims.

The scandal has severely hurt the credibility of Boston's Law. He and other church leaders knew about Geoghan's history of sexually abusing children while moving him from parish to parish in the 1980s and 1990s.

On Tuesday, Egan, the head of the New York Archdiocese, broke his silence about the widening scandal over pedophile priests by declaring abuse claims should be reported to authorities.

Egan also said that a newspaper report this week that suggested he failed to report claims of child abuse allegedly committed by priests under his authority when he was a chief prelate in Connecticut from 1988 to 2000 omitted key facts and included inaccuracies, noting he needed to review the matter in greater detail before saying more.

Since the accusations against Geoghan came to light, dioceses in California, Maine, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania have suspended priests over allegations they molested children.

Earlier in March, the bishop of Palm Beach, Florida, resigned over inappropriate relations with a teen-age seminary student in Missouri more than 25 years ago.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests