Pope says he leads a ‘wounded and sinner’ church

Pope Benedict XVI waves as he  arrives to attend a ceremony to mark the World Day of the Sick in Saint  Peter's Basilica at the Vatican February 11, 2009.

VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI admitted to world cardinals Monday that he led a “wounded and sinner” Church, as he marked five tumultuous years in charge, most recently mired in pedophile priest scandals.

The pontiff “evoked the sins of the Church”, describing it as “wounded and sinner” to some 50 cardinals gathered for his anniversary, the Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano said.

He “feels very strongly that he is not alone”, the paper reported the pontiff as saying, he “has at his sides the whole college of cardinals who are sharing with him vicissitudes and reassurance”.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi defended the embattled pope, telling Radio Vatican the priorities Benedict had defined after his election were being “pursued with coherence and courage” despite “tensions” and “obstacles”.

Waves of allegations sweeping the Church in Europe and the Americas had also been the backdrop to a tearful meeting between the pope and abuse victims on Sunday in Malta, one of the latest countries to be hit by sex abuse scandals.

In his third meeting with victims of child-molesting priests — the other two were during trips to Australia and the United States in 2008 — Benedict had expressed his “shame and sorrow” over the scourge.

Lawrence Grech, one of eight Maltese abuse victims who met the pope, told AFP: “He listened to us individually, and prayed and cried with us.”

Little fanfare accompanied the pope’s five-year milestone.  At a gathering of religious officials in Jerusalem, the head of the Pontifical Institute of Notre-Dame, Juan Solana, said “this year the Holy Father is attacked and his Church too”.  But while the Vatican and senior bishops have rallied around the pope, he has come under increasing pressure over allegations that the Vatican hierarchy, himself included, helped protect predator priests.

The pedophilia crisis has also shifted the focus away from other flashpoints that have marked Benedict’s papacy so far.  The pope found himself in his first full-blown crisis in September 2006 when he unleashed fury in the Muslim world with a speech in which he appeared to endorse the view of an obscure 14th-century Byzantine emperor that Islam is inherently violent.

It is with Judaism, however, that Benedict has had the most frequent brushes, notably when he lifted the excommunication of traditionalist bishop Richard Williamson, who has insisted that there were no Nazi gas chambers.   In 2008, Benedict allowed the revival of a Good Friday prayer “for the conversion of the Jews”, which had been thrown out by Vatican II in the 1960s.

Catholic-Jewish relations improved with a series of fence-mending statements and gestures by the Vatican and the pontiff, notably Benedict’s trip to Israel in May last year during which he prayed at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall.  But in December, Jews were up in arms once again when the pope moved his World War II-era predecessor pope Pius XII a step closer to sainthood with a decree bestowing the title “venerable”.

Ill-advised remarks dealing with the pedophilia priest scandals by officials close to the German pontiff have inflicted collateral damage on relations both with Jews and with gays.   Early this month the pope’s personal preacher evoked a parallel between anti-Semitism and the drumbeat of criticism against the Church for its handling of the pedophilia crisis.   And Benedict’s right-hand man, Cardinal Tercisio Bertone, sparked worldwide condemnation by linking pedophilia and homosexuality.  Vatican watcher John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter told AFP: “In terms of business management, this pontificate goes from one crisis to the other.”

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