Pope Benedict XVI Tuesday for the first time blamed the church's sex scandal on broad institutional flaws - on "sins inside the church" - in far-reaching comments that drew praise from some Long Island Catholics and criticism from others who said they were long overdue.

The pontiff's comments, made as he flew to Portugal for a four-day visit, represented an apparent shift from claims made by high-level Vatican officials who long have blamed the scandal on a campaign by the news media and abortion rights and pro-gay marriage groups. The pope also recently cited "serious mistakes" by Ireland's bishops in the priest sex scandal there.

"Attacks on the pope and the church come not only from outside the church, but the suffering of the church comes from inside the church, from sin that exists inside the church," Benedict told reporters aboard his plane, speaking about the abuse crisis.

"This we have always known, but today we see it in a really terrifying way, that the greatest persecution of the church does not come from the enemies outside but is born from the sin in the church," he added.

Benedict himself became a focus of the ongoing scandal. Questions were raised recently about how he handled abuse cases while serving as head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and as bishop in Munich in 1980 when a pedophile priest was moved to his diocese for treatment.

Tim Eschausse of the Long Island chapter of the sex abuse survivors group SNAP said the pope's comments were a reminder of the role Diocese of Rockville Centre Bishop William Murphy played when he served as a high-ranking official in the "scandal-ridden" Archdiocese of Boston. He repeated his calls for Murphy to resign.

Sean Dolan, a spokesman for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, dismissed Eschausse's criticism of Murphy as "ridiculous."

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"Since coming to the Diocese of Rockville Centre in 2001, Bishop Murphy has been a leader in implementing safe environment programs in the diocese," Dolan added. "Some organizations have looked at what we are doing and used it as a model."

Some Long Island Catholics welcomed the pope's comments Tuesday, but wondered why he didn't speak out sooner. "It's just that the pope expresses himself this way," Riverhead resident and Colombia native Laura Benitez, 64, said in Spanish. But "the church should not have remained silent for so long."

Dolores Thompson, 68, of Farmingdale, said Benedict "is doing positive things about the sex abuse crisis, but it's a little too late."

Carol Andersen, 37, of Huntington, said the priest abuse scandal has made her consider abandoning her Catholic faith. "What is going to prevent these priests from re-offending? Do we need to let them get married?"

Matt Provetto, 19, of Greenlawn, also wanted something "a bit" stronger. "Yeah, they can be forgiven," he said of offending priests, "but they really need to be punished for the sins they have committed."

Still, Bernice Simpson, a mother of five who was picking up a daughter at St. Patrick School in Huntington, said she felt the pope's words were proportionate.

Both Benedict and the church have been subject to "undeserved criticism," she said, and the abuse scandal should be addressed "in steps."

"I think he knows that human beings are fallible," said Simpson, 47.

 

In the pope's own words

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Pope Benedict XVI made his newsworthy remarks Tuesday on a flight to Portugal, where he is visiting for four days. He spoke in response to reporters' questions, which had been submitted in advance. According to wire service reports, these were among his remarks:

 

  • "Attacks on the pope and the church come not only from outside the church, but the suffering of the church comes from inside the church, from sin that exists inside the church."

 

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  • "This we have always known, but today we see it in a really terrifying way, that the greatest persecution of the church does not come from the enemies outside but is born from the sin in the church."

 

 

  • "The church has a profound need to relearn penance, to accept purification, to learn on the one hand forgiveness but also the necessity of justice. And forgiveness does not substitute justice."