Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI , right, meeting his successor, Pope Francis, on March 23, 2013, in Castel Gandolfo, where the retired pontiff resides.
(Photo: L'Osservatore Romano/AP)
In his first public comments since stepping down in February, the previous pope says he did not attempt to cover up child sexual abuse by Catholic priests.
Benedict XVI, now known as the emeritus pope, made the comments in an 11-page letter to a prominent Italian atheist and math professor, Piergiorgio Odifreddi. Excerpts from the correspondence, which covered several topics, were published Tuesday in the Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica with Benedict's permission.
The BBC writes that it is "thought to be the first time that Benedict has publicly rejected personal responsibility for covering up abuse."
Benedict, formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was head of the Vatican office responsible for investigating abuse beginning in 1981. He was elevated to the papacy in 2005, and later became the first pope to meet with victims of abuse.
In his Aug. 30 letter, the 86-year-old Benedict wrote:
"I never tried to cover up these things. That the power of evil penetrates to such a point in the interior world of the faith is, for us, a source of suffering.
"On the one hand we must accept that suffering, and on the other, at the same time, we must do everything possible so that such cases aren't repeated.
"It's also not a motive for comfort to know that, according to sociological research, the percentage of priests guilty of these crimes is no higher than in other comparable professional categories.
"In any event, one must not stubbornly present this deviance as if it were a nastiness specific to Catholicism."
Odifreddi's 2011 book, Dear Pope, I'm Writing You, challenged Benedict's views on Jesus of Nazareth.
Here's how the National Catholic Reporter sums up the pope's missive:
In general, Benedict thanks Odifreddi for seeking "an open dialogue" on matters of reason and faith, and for having approached his thought "in a respectful fashion, trying to do it justice," while also offering spirited defense of his views on several fronts. ...
Overall, the letter is devoted to an unfailingly polite, though occasionally pointed, response from Benedict on several stock subjects in the exchange between believers and their atheist critics.
A short essay by Odifreddi accompanied the letter's excerpts. He said he was "stunned" to receive a reply from the retired pontiff and explained that he wrote the book because believed that Benedict's ideas were "sufficiently firm and strong to be able easily to withstand a frontal assault."
He said he would include the entire letter in a new edition of his book.
Benedict's remarks did not satisfy church critics.
Jeff Anderson, a Minnesota attorney who has handled several abuse lawsuits against the church, called the letter "alarming and disturbing," Religion News Service reported.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests issued a statement: "The opposite of 'covering up' is 'uncovering' or 'disclosing,' We cannot name one predatory bishop, priest, nun, brother or seminarian who was publicly exposed because of Benedict."
Earlier this month, La Repubblica published a letter written by Benedict's successor, Pope Francis, to Italian journalist and leftist activist Eugenio Scalfari.