05/11/2010 04:50 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Pope Calls Abuse Of Minors 'Terrifying' Sign Of Church 'Sin'

By Francis X. Rocca
Religion News Service

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Benedict XVI called the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests a "truly terrifying" example of "sin within the church," which he said demands a response of "penitence" and "justice."

Speaking Tuesday (May 11) to reporters accompanying him on a flight to Portugal, Benedict struck a markedly different tone than recent statements by other church leaders, who had characterized controversy over pedophile priests as hostile press coverage and "petty gossip."

"The greatest persecution of the church comes not from enemies on the outside, but is born from sin inside the church," Benedict said.

"The church thus has a profound need to relearn penitence, accept purification, learn forgiveness, but also the necessity of justice," the pope said. "Forgiveness does not take the place of justice."

An American advocate for sex abuse victims quickly dismissed Benedict's words as insufficiently self-critical.

"The pope does a disservice to children, victims and Catholics by trying to perpetrate the myth that the church is somehow a 'victim,"' said Barbara Blaine of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "Children are victims."

Benedict's statement came after he was asked about a possible relationship between the clerical sex abuse scandal and the "sufferings of the church" reportedly predicted by the Virgin Mary at the Portuguese shrine of Fatima.

The pope's four-day (May 11-14) visit to Portugal will focus on observances at Fatima on Thursday (May 13). Those observances will mark the 93rd anniversary of the first of six reported apparitions witnessed by three shepherd children, who reportedly saw and heard prophecies from the Virgin Mary in 1917.

During his visit, Benedict is also expected to reiterate the need for an increasingly secular Europe to rediscover its Christian heritage, one of the major themes of his pontificate.

"Secularism is something normal, but the separation and opposition between secularism and a culture of faith is anomalous and must be overcome," the pope said Tuesday, in response to another question during his in-flight press conference.

Benedict also drew a parallel between that opposition and what he described as a loss of business ethics, which he indicated as a cause of the financial crisis now besetting Portugal and Europe.

Portugal is 84.5 percent Catholic, according to the 2001 census, but a 2005 survey found that only 27 percent of Catholics there regularly attend Mass.

The nation's parliament voted in February to give same-sex couples many of the rights of marriage, a policy that Benedict has called "gravely unjust." Portugal's President Anibal Cavaco Silva, a practicing Catholic, has yet to sign the bill into law.