VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI told Vatican officials yesterday that they must reflect on the church's culpability in its child sex-abuse scandal, but he also blamed a secular society in which he said the mistreatment of children was frighteningly common.
In his traditional, end-of-the-year speech to Vatican cardinals and bishops, Benedict said revelations of abuse in 2010 reached "an unimaginable dimension" that required the church to accept the "humiliation" as a call for renewal.
"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," the pope said.
Benedict also said, however, that the scandal must be seen in a broader social context, in which child pornography is seemingly considered normal by society and drug use and sexual tourism are on the rise.
"The psychological destruction of children, in which human persons are reduced to articles of merchandise, is a terrifying sign of the times," he said.
He said that as recently as the 1970s, pedophilia wasn't considered an absolute evil but rather part of a spectrum of behaviors that people refused to judge in the name of tolerance and relativism.
As an avalanche of cases of pedophile priests came to light, church officials frequently defended their previous practice of putting abusers in therapy, not jail, by saying that was the norm in society at the time. Only this year did the Vatican post on its website unofficial guidelines for bishops to report pedophile priests to police if local laws require it.
"In the 1970s, pedophilia was theorized as something fully in conformity with man and even with children," the pope said. "It was maintained - even within the realm of Catholic theology - that there is no such thing as evil in itself or good in itself. There is only a 'better than' and a 'worse than.' Nothing is good or bad in itself." "The effects of such theories are evident today," he said.
Benedict has previously acknowledged that the scandal was the result of sin that the church must repent for, and make amends with victims.
"It is fundamentally disturbing to watch a brilliant man so conveniently misdiagnose a horrific scandal," said Barbara Blaine, president of the U.S. group, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
She said the scandal wasn't caused by the 1970s but rather by the church's culture of secrecy and fixation with self-preservation. "Whenever the pope tires of talking about abuse and starts acting on abuse, he should focus on taking immediate, practical steps to oust those who commit, ignore and conceal clergy sex crimes first," Blaine said.