Priesthood sex abuse addressed by Pope

Published March 22, 2002

VATICAN CITY (AP) - Breaking his silence, Pope John Paul II denounced the "grave scandal" of priests implicated in sex-abuse cases rocking the Roman Catholic Church, saying they had betrayed their vows and succumbed to evil.

In an annual pre-Easter message to priests released yesterday by the Vatican, the pope used some of his strongest language to address an issue that has seriously embarrassed the church in the United States and elsewhere.

"As priests, we are personally and profoundly afflicted by the sins of some of our brothers who have betrayed the grace of ordination," John Paul said.

He said they had succumbed "to the most grievous forms" of what he called, using the Latin phrase, the "mystery of evil."

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

John Paul said the church "shows her concern for the victims and strives to respond in truth and justice to each of these painful situations."

It was the first time the pope publicly addressed the issue since widespread accusations of sexual misconduct by priests surfaced in the United States in recent months. The accusations have led to the fall of one bishop, from Palm Beach, Fla., actions taken against dozens of priests around the country, and the tarnishing of the reputation of Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston for failing to take action against a child-molesting priest.

A top cardinal who presented the pope's letter defended the church's efforts to uphold morality and punish wrongdoers within its ranks. He refused to answer any specific questions, however, including whether the Vatican was planning new measures to screen candidates for the priesthood and whether Cardinal Law still had the pope's confidence.

The pope's pre-Easter letter generally expresses his closeness to his corps of priests around the world without taking up such a burning issue as sexual abuse.

The problem has worldwide implications for the church.

In a message in November to the bishops of Oceania, John Paul said that "sexual abuse (in that region) by some clergy and religious has caused great suffering and spiritual harm to the victims."

In January, the Catholic Church in Ireland agreed to a landmark $110 million payment to children abused by clergy over decades. More than 20 priests, brothers and nuns have been convicted of molesting children.

Sexual abuse cases involving cover-ups have also been reported in England, France and Australia, among other countries.

John Paul has been described as particularly saddened by sexual harassment allegations leveled against the archbishop of Poznan in the pope's native Poland. Archbishop Juliusz Paetz, who worked with John Paul at the Vatican and was sent by him to Poland in 1982, denied the allegations in a letter read in parishes last Sunday.

For years, the Vatican viewed such reports as attempts to discredit the church, as part of an orchestrated campaign against celibacy or efforts to win money through lawsuits.