Pope Francis has reportedly claimed that "paedophilia inside the Church is at the level of two per cent" and includes “priests and even bishops and cardinals”.
In an interview with the Italian newspaper la Repubblica he said that the statistic was provided to him by advisers in the Vatican.
Assuming the Pope was referring to those who have taken vows, that would mean that about one in every 50 Catholic clergy and Religious is a paedophile.
In the hard-hitting interview with the Italian newspaper published on Sunday, Francis said the abuse of children was like "leprosy" infecting the Church.
He denounced the corruption of a child as "the most terrible and unclean thing imaginable", vowing to "confront it with the seriousness it demands".
He acknowledged that paedophilia was unfortunately common and widespread, even in the Church.
The paper quoted Francis as saying: "The Church is fighting for the eradication of the habit and for education that rehabilitates. But this leprosy is also present in our house."
He added: "Many of my colleagues who are working against it tell me that paedophilia inside the Church is at the level of two per cent."
He said the figures were supposed to reassure him, "but I have to say that they do not reassure me by any means. On the contrary I find them deeply concerning."
"Among the two per cent who are paedophiles are priests and even bishops and cardinals", he was reported to have said.
Many more are guilty of covering it up by keeping quiet, he said, adding, "This state of affairs is intolerable and it’s my intention to tackle it with the seriousness it deserves".
Pope Francis also reportedly called mandatory priestly celibacy a "problem" and said "there are solutions and I will find them."
Catherine Pepinster, editor of The Tablet, wrote on the Guardian's website following the Pope's comments: "Yes, about two in every 100 priests I have known or reported on have later been exposed as abusers of children, especially adolescent boys." But she cautioned against linking Francis' comments on "solving" the problem of priestly celibacy to ending the abuse crisis.
She argued that ordaining married men would solve another issue – the lack of access to the Sacraments – but pointed out that paedophilia was not limited to people who people who had taken a vow of celibacy. Blaming abuse by priests on mandatory celibacy "doesn’t account for Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris, or the social workers, teachers, Anglican vicars, and fathers and uncles who have all assaulted young people".
The Vatican quickly cautioned against taking the Pope's quotes at face value, and claimed the interviewer, Eugenio Scalfari, did not record the "conversation", but relied on memory.
Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi said that the newspaper’s overall message was faithful to Francis' words, saying it "captured the spirit" of the conversation. But he denied that Francis had said that there were some cardinals who were paedophiles.
Last autumn the newspaper admitted that a previous interview with Scalfari, a professed atheist, was "reconstructed" solely by memory and without the aid of notes or a recording.
At the time the Vatican said Scalfari erroneously quoted the Pope on a key detail concerning the conclave. He had claimed Francis said he went to a private room to consider the appointment before accepting it.
While Pope Francis has been energetic in his reforms to the Vatican, he has been accused of not doing enough to tackle the abuse crisis. But last week Francis issued his strongest words on the subject so far as he held a historic three-hour meeting with abuse victims. In a special Mass before the meeting he begged abuse survivors for forgiveness for the "sacrilegious" crimes committed by "the sons and daughters of the Church who have betrayed their mission."
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