LONDON – LONDON (AP) — The Roman Catholic Church in Ireland has lost all credibility because of its mishandling of abuse by priests, the leader of the Anglican church said in remarks released Saturday. A leading Catholic archbishop said he was "stunned" by the comments.
The remarks released Saturday marked the first time Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has spoken publicly on the crisis engulfing the Catholic Church. The comments come ahead of a planned visit to England and Scotland by Pope Benedict XVI later this year.
"I was speaking to an Irish friend recently who was saying that it's quite difficult in some parts of Ireland to go down the street wearing a clerical collar now," Williams told the BBC. "And an institution so deeply bound into the life of a society, suddenly becoming, suddenly losing all credibility — that's not just a problem for the church, it is a problem for everybody in Ireland, I think."
At the Vatican, the pope celebrated Easter Vigil on Saturday evening but didn't directly refer to the scandal in his homily.
The Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano on Saturday denounced what it called the "vile defamation campaign" against the pope and cited messages of solidarity that had arrived from bishops from around the world.
Benedict, who on Sunday celebrates Easter and delivers his "Urbi et Orbi" speech, hasn't made any explicit reference to the scandal since he released a letter to the Irish faithful concerning the abuse crisis in that country on March 20.
The interview with Williams, recorded March 26, is to be aired Monday on the BBC's "Start the Week" program as part of a general discussion of religion to mark Easter. But its publication ahead of the interview caught Catholic leaders off guard.
Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said he had "rarely felt personally so discouraged" as when he heard Williams' opinions.
"I have been more than forthright in addressing the failures of the Catholic Church in Ireland. I still shudder when I think of the harm that was caused to abused children. I recognize that their church failed them," a statement, posted on the archdiocese's Web site, said. "Those working for renewal in the Catholic Church in Ireland did not need this comment on this Easter weekend and do not deserve it."
Martin also noted that that Anglican leaders in Ireland — including the Church of Ireland's Archbishop of Dublin John Neill and Bishop Richard Clarke — had distanced themselves from Williams' statements, with Clarke describing them as careless.
Martin later said that Williams had called him to express regret for the "difficulties which may have been created" by the interview, but it wasn't clear if that constituted an apology or whether Williams still stood by his remarks.
Calls to Williams' office seeking comment on his interview and the call to Martin were not immediately returned.
The Catholic church has been on the defensive over accusations that leaders protected child abusers for decades in many countries, and Williams' criticisms are likely to strain already testy relations between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion — which estimate 1.1 billion and 80 million adherents respectively.
Although both the pope and the archbishop of Canterbury have stressed the importance of healing the Reformation-era rift that split the churches in the 16th century, relations hit a low point last year when the Vatican invited conservative Anglicans to join the Catholic Church.
How many will take up the offer is still unknown, although in the interview Williams said he didn't think the issue "is going to be a big deal."
"I think there'll be a few people who will take advantage of it — and they'll take advantage of it because they believe they ought to be in communion with the bishop of Rome. And I can only say fine, God bless them."
The strained relations come at an awkward time for both churches, which are under considerable internal pressure.
The Catholic Church has been rocked by sex abuse scandals in countries such as the United States, Germany and Ireland, where Cardinal Sean Brady faces calls for his resignation following allegations that he played a role in helping to cover up activities of pedophile priests.
The pope himself has come under fire, with critics accusing Benedict — who as a Vatican cardinal directed the Holy See's policy on handling abuse cases — was part of a culture of secrecy intended to protect church hierarchy.
The Anglican Church, meanwhile, still faces bruising internal debates — or even a potential split — over what rights to extend to homosexuals and women within the church.
The pope's planned first official visit to Britain in November already has generated controversy and promises of protests after Benedict's criticism of British rules designed to protect gays and women in the workplace, which have raised fears at the Vatican that the Catholic Church could eventually be prosecuted for refusing to hire gays or transsexuals.
Both Williams and Benedict are due to meet during the visit to Britain, but the archbishop seemed curt when describing how he would greet the pope at Lambeth Palace, his official residence just south of the River Thames.
Williams said the pontiff would be welcomed as "as a valued partner, and that's about it."
In the interview, Williams said Christian institutions, faced with the choice of self-protection or revealing potentially damaging secrets, have decided to keep quiet to preserve their credibility.
"We've learned that that is damaging, it's wrong, it's dishonest and it requires that very hard recognition ... which ought to be natural for the Christian church based as it is on repentance and honesty," he said.
Associated Press Writers Jennifer Quinn, and Nicole Winfield in Rome, contributed to this report.