Pope John Paul II, in a letter released Thursday, alluded for the first time to recent pedophile scandals in his church, saying "a dark shadow of suspicion" had been cast over all priests by "some of our brothers who have betrayed the grace of ordination" and succumbed to evil.
In his annual pre-Easter message to priests around the world, the pope did not mention the American church, which many Catholics in the United States say is undergoing the worst crisis in its history while Rome remains silent.
In comforting the victims of abuse, the pope said, priests should redouble their search for faith. He expressed no opinion on the conduct of the American bishops.
In the one paragraph that did refer to the scandals, the 81-year-old pope presented priests as among the victims "personally and profoundly afflicted" by the unnamed sins of those priests who had succumbed "even to the most grievous forms of the mysterium iniquitatis _ the mystery of evil _ at work in the world."
"Grave scandal is caused," the letter said, "with the result that a dark shadow of suspicion is cast over all the other fine priests who perform their ministry with honesty and integrity and often with heroic self-sacrifice."
The way that the letter mentioned victims of abuse is likely to disappoint Catholics who were expecting a fuller and more pastoral response.
"As the church shows her concern for the victims and strives to respond in truth and justice to each of these painful situations," the letter said, priests must "commit ourselves more fully to the search for holiness."
At a news conference explaining the letter, one of the Vatican's top officials, Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, lost his patience with reporters who pressed to know why the pope had not yet spoken about the problem directly, or addressed it more substantially in the letter.
Although the sex scandals are important, Castrillon said, "The pope is worried over peace in the world."
Castrillon, who heads the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy and is considered a leading candidate to succeed John Paul, seemed inclined to minimize the problem. For example, he said one point he wanted to emphasize was that there had not yet been any good studies on what percentage of priests are pedophiles, compared with people in other lines of work.
Part of the reason the Vatican has kept its distance is that it has seen sexual abuse as largely an American problem. That perception is likely to change.
In John Paul's native Poland, the archbishop of Poznan, Monsignor Juliusz Paetz, was accused in the news media this month of molesting seminarians. Paetz, 67, a former Vatican prelate appointed by the pope to his present job, denied the accusations, but has remained a center of attention because of events in the United States. In Austria, grass-roots pressure forced the retirement in 1998 of the archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, after he was accused of molesting seminarians. He denied the accusations but his replacement, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, said they were true, and apologized on his behalf.
In a financial settlement reached this year, the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland agreed to pay the equivalent of $110-million to compensate thousands of victims of molestation in church-run schools and child care centers over most of the last century.
French prosecutors have aggressively pursued pedophilia among priests. About 30 priests have been convicted for pedophile acts and 11 are in prison.