By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 20, 2010; 6:26 PM
In a remarkable demonstration of public soul-searching, Pope Benedict XVI on Monday used a high-profile Christmas speech to Vatican cardinals and bishops to urge reflection on the flaws in the church's very message and culture that permitted a global sexual-abuse scandal.
"We must ask ourselves what we can do to repair as much as possible the injustice that has occurred," Benedict said. "We must ask ourselves what was wrong in our proclamation, in our whole way of living the Christian life, to allow such a thing to happen."
In his address, which Benedict has used to emphasize his priorities to the assembled hierarchy, the pontiff said the past year's revelations of decades of sexual abuse of children by priests had taken on an "unimaginable dimension" and amounted to a "humiliation" that should be accepted as an "exhortation to truth and a call to renewal."
Benedict has often expressed disgust for the sins or "filth" in the church that caused the abuse of innocent victims and an uneasy seeking of repentance. In an apparent effort to demonstrate the goodwill of the pope, who was indirectly drawn into the scandal when questions arose over his handling of cases while he was archbishop of Munich, the Vatican this month published a 1988 letter that appeared to show him calling for quicker punishment of priests in his capacity as the church's top doctrinal enforcer.
In his remarks Monday, the pope seemed to go further, suggesting that Christianity and its message had failed to prevent and address the abuse.
During the past year, a sexual-abuse scandal that top cardinals had once insinuated was a problem of the American church alone has spread throughout the world. Investigations across Europe have discovered a familiar pattern of bishops and other church hierarchy, including Vatican officials, ignoring or covering up sexual abuse of children by priests.
On Monday, the pope put the abuse in the context of the "many good priests" and also placed blame on a favorite villain for conservatives within the church: a sexually derelict culture of the 1970s in which a godless relativity ran wild and "pedophilia was theorized as something that was in keeping with man and even the child."
"The effects of such theories are evident today," said Benedict, calling attention to "the psychological destruction of children, in which human persons are reduced to articles of merchandise."
The address in the apostolic palace's frescoed Sala Regia also lamented the rise of secularism over a uniformly accepted morality ("The very future of the world is at stake") and the dangers of "Christianophobia." But the sharp passages about the stains of abuse forced attention to the breakdowns in the church and urged top officials in the Roman Curia to root out potential predators in future generations of priests.
"We must be determined to make every possible effort in priestly formation to prevent anything of the kind from happening again," said Benedict, who added: "We are well aware of the particular gravity of this sin committed by priests and of our corresponding responsibility."
Some advocates for abuse victims criticized the pope's analysis, the Associated Press reported.
"It is fundamentally disturbing to watch a brilliant man so conveniently misdiagnose a horrific scandal," said Barbara Blaine, president of the main U.S. victims' group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
She told AP that the scandal wasn't caused by the 1970s but rather by the church's culture of secrecy and fixation with self-preservation in which predator priests, and the bishops who moved them around rather than turn them in, were rarely disciplined.
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