VATICAN CITY -- A weary Pope Benedict XVI, who turns 83 on Friday, returned from a post-Easter break at the papal villa outside Rome on Wednesday but got no respite from the cascade of headlines about the clergy sexual abuse crisis. Fallout from statements on Monday by the pope's second-in-command, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, linking homosexuality and pedophilia, continued to provoke an uproar throughout Europe, making the front pages of many major newspapers.
While speaking to reporters during a visit to Chile, Bertone, the Vatican's Secretary of State and the No. 2 official after the pontiff, rejected charges that mandatory celibacy for priests leads to sexual abuse of children and instead linked pedophilia to homosexuality.
"Many psychologists and psychiatrists have demonstrated that there is no relation between celibacy and pedophilia," Bertone said. "But many others have demonstrated, I have been told recently, that there is a relation between homosexuality and pedophilia. That is true. That is the problem."
The statement brought angry denunciations.
"This is a scientific absurdity," Franco Grillini, a former parliamentarian and leader of Italy's gay rights movement, told Reuters. "Because they have their own problems with the abuse crisis and don't know how to handle it, they are trying to pass their 'cross' from their shoulders on to ours."
Even the French foreign ministry weighed in, calling Bertone's comments an "unacceptable linkage that we condemn."
Alessandra Mussolini, a right-wing parliamentarian and granddaughter of Fascist leader Benito Mussolini, who sent gays into internal exile, also criticized the Vatican's vice-pope:
"You can't link sexual orientation to pedophilia...this link risks becoming dangerously misleading for the protection of children."
Even other church officials were speaking out.
A spokesman for the Catholic bishops of England and Wales released a statement Wednesday rejecting Bertone's argument as unsupported by the evidence.
"The consensus among researchers is that the sexual abuse of children is not a question of sexual 'orientation', whether heterosexual or homosexual, but of a disordered attraction or 'fixation'," said Father Marcus Stock. "Many abusers of children have never developed the capacity for mature adult relationships. Instead, their sexual attractions focus on children -- boys, girls, or both. In the sexual abuse of children the issue is the sexual fixation of the abusers and not their sexual orientation."
Eventually, the Vatican's own spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, released an unusual late afternoon clarification, saying that "Church authorities do not consider it within their competency to make general statements of a specific psychological or medical nature," but refer to studies by specialists and researchers.
Privately, many bishops and church officials outside Rome were growing exasperated with the Vatican's ongoing public relations debacle over weeks of revelations of clergy abuse of children emerging across Europe that even touch on the pope's record when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
Vatican officials "are making pronouncements that have the same effect as pouring gas on a fire," veteran Vatican-watcher Andrea Tornielli wrote in Wednesday's edition of Il Giornale, a popular daily.
The whole slog seems to be taking a toll on Benedict. He has looked especially weary in recent weeks as the bad news has rolled along, and he did not appear especially energetic during his weekly public audience in St. Peter's Square on Wednesday morning. He again did not address the crisis directly -- he has not spoken publicly about the latest round of scandals since the news media began reporting them. But he also sparked speculation by announcing that with two months left in the Vatican's Year for Priests, he would begin a weekly series of talks at the Wednesday audiences on the priesthood.
At this Wednesday's audience talk, Benedict said that the priest's task is "to make present amid the confusion and disorientation of our age the light of the word of God, the light that is Christ himself."
The pontiff may have a chance to address the crisis more directly when he makes an overnight trip to heavily Catholic Malta this weekend. Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said Benedict is willing to meet with abuse victims but would not do so under media pressure or in a public encounter.
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