VATICAN CITY — Seven months after leaving the papacy, emeritus Pope Benedict XVI broke his self-imposed silence Tuesday by releasing a letter to one of Italy's best-known atheists in which he denied covering up for sexually abusive priests.
It was the first work published by Benedict since he retired and his first-ever denial of personal responsibility for the sex scandal. But what made the letter published in La Repubblica more remarkable was that it appeared just two weeks after Pope Francis penned a similar letter to the newspaper's atheist editor.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the appearance of the letters was pure coincidence. But they provide evidence that the two men in white, who live across the Vatican gardens from each other, are of the same mind about the need for such dialogue and may even be collaborating on it.
Benedict wrote his letter to Piergiorgio Odifreddi, an Italian atheist and mathematician who in 2011 wrote a book titled Dear Pope, I'm Writing to You. The book was Odifreddi's reaction to Benedict's classic Introduction to Christianity, perhaps his best-known work.
In his book, Odifreddi posed a series of polemical arguments about the Catholic faith, including the church's sex abuse scandal.
For nearly a quarter-century, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger headed the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office responsible for handling abuse cases. He was prefect when the scandal first exploded in the United States in 2002 and was pope when it erupted on a global scale in 2010 with revelations of thousands of victims in Europe and beyond, of bishops who covered up for pedophile priests, and of Vatican officials who turned a blind eye to the crimes and in some cases actively interfered with bishops trying to report pedophiles to police.
In his letter, Benedict denies personal responsibility. "I never tried to cover these things up," he wrote.