Child sex abuse scandal is 'greatest threat to Catholic Church' says Pope

Pope Benedict XVI has admitted that the child sex abuse scandal is the greatest threat to the Catholic Church.

Issuing his strongest condemnation yet of the 'terrifying' scandal, the pontiff added that the crisis derived from inside the Church.

He spoke as he arrived in Portugal for a four-day visit.

Pope Benedict XVI chats with Archbishop Jose Policarpo, left, and Father Jose Manuel dos Santos Ferreira in the Jeronimos Monastery in Lisbon

Portugal visit: Pope Benedict XVI chats with Archbishop Jose Policarpo, left, and Father Jose Manuel dos Santos Ferreira in the Jeronimos Monastery in Lisbon

For the last three months the Catholic Church has been hit by sex scandals involving paedophile priests in Ireland, Austria, Germany and the United States and several bishops have resigned as a result.

Pope Benedict himself has even been drawn into the controversy with claims that he 'dragged his heels' over a case involving a German priest when he was Archbishop of Munich in the early 1980s.

In his comments the Pontiff said: 'Forgiveness never substitutes justice. It is really terrifying that today the Church is suffering from these attacks, that come not from outside but from within.'

He added that the Church was being 'persecuted for its sins' and he described how the sex abuse scandals were part of the so-called Third Mystery of Fatima.

The Mysteries of Fatima are a trio of secrets said to have been given to shepherd children in 1917 during a vision of the Virgin Mary in the Portuguese village of Fatima.

The First and Second concerned the two World Wars and the rise and fall of Communism while the Third, which was only disclosed in 2000 by the Vatican, was said to have foretold the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II in 1981.

However there have long been suggestions that part of the Third secret was withheld and the Pope appeared to confirm this when he said that the 'suffering of the Church as a result of the sex abuse case' was also part of the secret.

He added: 'Besides the suffering of Pope John Paul II in the Third Message there was also indications as to the future of the Church.

'It is true that it speaks of the passion of the Church. That the Church will suffer.

'The Lord said that the Church would suffer until the end of the world. Today we are seeing this in a particular way.'

As part of his trip the Pope will visit Fatima on Thursday - the same day in 1917 that the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to the three young children and it is also the same day that Turkish hitman Mehmet Ali Agca tried to shoot Pope John Paul II in 1981.

Speaking to reporters on the plane carrying him to Portugal the Pope added: 'The answers that the Church must give are penance, prayer, acceptance, forgiveness and also justice because forgiveness cannot replace justice.'

An indication of just how deep the scandal has rocked the Vatican was earlier this week when the Archbishop of Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn accused the fellow Cardinal Angelo Sodano of 'covering up' an Austrian priest sex abuse case.

Cardinal Schoenborn also said that Cardinal Sodano's comments that the Church was a victim of  'petty gossip' regrading the scandals were an insult to victims.

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