VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI told Irish bishops Saturday that instances of sexual abuse committed by clergy were "egregious crimes," and urged them to urgently rebuild confidence and do whatever necessary to prevent future offenses.
In his first comments on the subject since becoming pontiff last year, Benedict said the wounds inflicted by sexual abuse "run deep." The remarks were made to bishops from Ireland where the Catholic Church has been gravely damaged by massive sex abuse scandals.
"In the exercise of your pastoral ministry, you have had to respond in recent years to many heart-rending cases of sexual abuse of minors," the pontiff said. "These are all the more tragic when the abuser is a cleric."
"The wounds caused by such acts run deep, and it is an urgent task to rebuild confidence and trust where these have been damaged," Benedict said.
The pope told the bishops that as they continue to deal with the problem, "it is important to establish the truth of what happened in the past, to take whatever steps are necessary to prevent it from occurring again, to ensure that the principles of justice are fully respected and, above all, to bring healing to the victims and to all those affected by these egregious crimes."
"In this way, the Church in Ireland will grow stronger," he added.
The pope's comments were likely to resonate in other nations where the Catholic Church has been rocked by sex abuse scandals, such as the United States. Benedict made no mention of other cases in his speech.
In Ireland, the church's moral standing, Mass attendance and applications for priesthood have plummeted since 1994, when the first major scandal involving a pedophile priest triggered the collapse of the government of then-Prime Minister Albert Reynolds.
Since then, both church and state in the country — where nearly 90 percent of its 4 million residents identify themselves as Catholic — have struggled to come to terms with the scale of abuse committed by priests. All but one seminary has closed.
The pope said however that "the fine work and selfless dedication of the great majority of priests and religious in Ireland should not be obscured by the transgressions of some of their brethren."
The pontiff also spoke of the political future of Northern Ireland, saying he prayed that "the committed efforts of those concerned will lead to the creation of a society marked by a spirit of reconciliation, mutual respect and willing cooperation for the common good of all."
Benedict has rarely spoken openly about sexual abuse cases.
Some of his strongest comments came in March 2005, shortly before he was made pope. In meditations composed for the Good Friday procession at the Colosseum, Benedict, then the Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, denounced what he called "filth" in the church "even among those ... in the priesthood." Those words were seen by many as a possible denunciation of the clergy sexual abuse scandals.
In May, Benedict asked the elderly founder of the conservative order Legionaries of Christ, Mexican priest the Rev. Marcial Maciel, to stop celebrating public Masses and live a life of "prayer and penance" following a Vatican investigation into allegations he sexually abused seminarians decades ago.
The decision marked the first major abuse penalty approved by Benedict as pope, and showed he was not afraid pursuing prelates who enjoyed particular favor with his predecessor, John Paul II.