Pope: Church's Greatest Enemy Comes From Within
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Pope Benedict speaks at the Portela international airport in Lisbon on Tuesday. He's visiting Portugal for four days.
LISBON, Portugal (May 11) – In some of his most direct comments about priestly sex abuse, Pope Benedict XVI said today that the "terrifying" truth is that the Catholic Church's "greatest persecution" has come from within its own ranks.
Benedict arrived in Lisbon this morning at the start of a four-day Portugal tour that includes an open-air mass on the capital's riverfront this evening and a trip to Fatima, a pilgrimage site where faithful believe the Virgin Mary appeared to shepherd children in 1917. In Fatima, the pope is marking the 10th anniversary of the shepherds' beatification, which put them on the road to sainthood.
Aboard his plane en route to Lisbon, Benedict spoke to reporters from several news agencies and delivered perhaps his most forthright comments on the sex abuse scandal that broke two months ago, embroiling the church worldwide and leading to dozens of lawsuits as well as resignations of bishops and priests.
"Today we see in a truly terrifying way that the greatest persecution of the church does not come from outside enemies but is born of sin within the church," the 83-year-old pontiff said in response to a question about the scandal, submitted in advance.
"The church has a deep need to learn to do penance, accept purification, and to learn to ask forgiveness," he said. But he added that "forgiveness cannot be a substitute for justice."
Allegations that church leaders covered up sex abuse by pedophile priests and shielded them from prosecution in several European countries and the U.S. have overshadowed preparations for Pope Benedict's visit to Portugal, his first since becoming pope five years ago.
Portugal is an example of a once-traditional Catholic country that's become more secular in recent years, and where the church would like to reassert its influence. About 90 percent of Portuguese consider themselves Catholics, but only 20 percent attend weekly services. Until the mid-1970s, Portugal was ruled by a military dictatorship that leaned heavily on Catholic doctrine in its governing philosophy. But the country recently legalized abortion and has voted to allow gay marriage -- policies opposed by the church.
Wearing an ivory robe and large gold crucifix around his neck, Benedict stepped off his plane in Lisbon this morning and was greeted by Portugal's president, Anibal Cavaco Silva, and his wife Maria. The president welcomed the pope to a "free and plural Portugal" whose people, he said, have "a calling to recognize the value of diversity."
Portugal's Socialist party holds power in parliament, but Silva is from an opposition center-right party which opposed the country's gay marriage measure. The bill was endorsed by lawmakers, and Silva is due to decide next week whether to sign it into law. If he does, Portugal will be the sixth country in the world to allow same-sex marriage.