VATICAN CITY – Pope John Paul II (search) on Friday urged church officials to be fair when judging priests accused of sex abuse but said the "predominant" need was to protect the faithful.
He also called for seminaries and church authorities to do a better job of training priests to be celibate.
The pope made the comments in a speech to members of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's (search) orthodoxy watchdog which also judges cases of priests accused of sexual misconduct (search).
John Paul told the prelates they had seen a "noteworthy increase" in their caseloads ever since the abuse crisis erupted in the United States in January 2002. Dozens of reports emerged of abusive priests who had been moved from parish to parish rather than being punished.
The U.S. Catholic Church has since adopted stricter norms to deal with such cases, and more than 325 of the United States' 46,000 clergy have either resigned or been barred from church work.
Victims groups, however, have accused the church hierarchy of favoring the protection of priests over their victims, criticizing in particular the secret Vatican tribunals where accused priests are judged.
But John Paul said current church law, if applied fairly, guarantees the accused's right to a proper defense "as well as the needs of the common good."
Once there is evidence of a crime, church authorities must take into account "the predominant need to protect the people of God."
He also emphasized the need to better train priests "to embrace with joy and generosity the style of humble, modest and chaste life, which is the practical foundation of ecclesiastical celibacy."
John Paul has spoken out frequently about the need for priests to be celibate, particularly in the wake of the sex crisis. He has rejected calls for flexibility in the requirement.