ROME - Breaking years of silence on major church affairs, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has written a lengthy letter devoted to clerical sex abuse in which he attributes the crisis to a breakdown of church and societal moral teaching and says he felt compelled to assist "in this difficult hour."
The 6,000-word letter, published Thursday, April 11, by a Catholic outlet and the Italian newspaper Corriere della Serra, laments the secularization of the West, decries the 1960s sexual revolution, and describes seminaries that became filled during that period with "homosexual cliques."
The pope emeritus, in emphasizing the retreat of religious belief and firm church teaching, provides a markedly different explanation for the abuse crisis than that offered by Pope Francis.
"Why did pedophilia reach such proportions?" Benedict wrote, according to the Catholic News Agency, which published the full text in English. "Ultimately, the reason is the absence of God."
Since abdicating the papacy six years ago, Benedict - living in a monastery inside the Vatican City walls - had remained nearly silent on issues facing the church, in part to yield full authority to his successor, Pope Francis. But Benedict's decision to speak out shows the unprecedented and awkward position facing the ideologically divided Roman Catholic Church, which has - for the first time in six centuries - two potential authority figures who hold sometimes-differing views.
Benedict's personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, confirmed the authenticity of the letter in an email.
In the letter, Benedict wrote that he contacted both Francis and the Vatican's secretary of state before proceeding. And the pope emeritus finished his essay by thanking Francis for his work to show "the light of God."
"Since I myself had served in a position of responsibility as shepherd of the Church at the time of the public outbreak of the crisis, and during the run-up to it, I had to ask myself - even though, as emeritus, I am no longer directly responsible - what I could contribute to a new beginning," Benedict said.
But theologians and church analysts noted that there was little overlap between Benedict and Francis' diagnosis of the church's central problem. Francis has said that abuse often results from corrupted power of clergy, and he has acknowledged systemic problems that result in coverup. Those themes also prevailed during a February sexual abuse summit at the Vatican that involved leading bishops from around the world.
Benedict, instead, took a far more theological and societal approach and said little about concrete reforms that could better safeguard young people in the church. Benedict devoted the first third of his letter to cultural changes inside and outside the church beginning in the 1960s that gave rise to an "all-out sexual freedom." He wrote that Catholic moral theology "suffered a collapse" of its own during a period of major reforms.
One outcome of the sexual revolution, Benedict wrote, is that "pedophilia was then also diagnosed as allowed and appropriate."
On Twitter, David Gibson, the director of Fordham University's Center on Religion and Culture, said it was a "major problem" that Benedict was "blaming the abuse crisis on liberal mores and gays and secularization."
"As a friend notes," Gibson said, "[Benedict's] narrative runs against everything said and done at the February summit. So it is deeply problematic and damaging at a crucial time."
Others noted that clerical abuse cases existed well before the 1960s.
In the letter, Benedict did not describe his own role in dealing with the crisis, nor did he discuss particular cases. Benedict, before becoming pope, was the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican doctrinal office that handles abuse cases.
As pope, he defrocked hundreds of priests, and the Vatican was more forthcoming than it is now about releasing data on abuse.
But analysts say Benedict, like so many church leaders, also had significant shortcomings and was slow to acknowledge the institutional problems that have enabled abuse to persist - including the role of bishops and cardinals in protecting accused priests.
"There is not one moment of recognition that the abuse crisis was also the result of a collective lapse of judgment by the entire church, including by the Vatican, for a long time," said Massimo Faggioli, a Villanova University professor of theology.
Faggioli said that Benedict "tells a tiny part and a very idiosyncratic version of the story without mentioning his role in the Vatican for almost four decades."
Benedict in the letter also took aim at some of the shortcomings of church law for handling abuse cases. He said the church law traditionally favored the accused and its justice system was "overwhelmed" by cases in which a "genuine criminal process" was required in order to impose a maximum penalty.
"All of this actually went beyond the capacities of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith," the Vatican doctrinal office that handles abuse cases, Benedict wrote. He noted that Francis has since enacted some unspecified "reforms."
Benedict, who turns 92 next week, has remained in good mental health, according to those who have visited him, although he is physically frail. Several times in the last half-year, he has been photographed with Pope Francis. But he has not spoken in detail until now about sexual abuse since stepping down from the papacy.
In 2013, he became the first pope since Gregory XII in 1415 to step down. Church historians say that decision - and his handling of the pope emeritus position - could define the role for future popes who might follow his lead in abdicating. Benedict made the decision after stepping down to remain in the Vatican and continue dressing in papal white. The German pontiff also chose not to revert to his given name, Joseph Ratzinger.
Benedict has since remained largely in seclusion, quietly hosting visitors, reading, spending time in the Vatican gardens with the help of a walker. Still, more traditionalist Catholics have used him as a counterpoint to the more reformist papacy of Francis, and at times encouraged him to speak out about church affairs.
This article was written by Chico Harlan and Stefano Pitrelli , reporters for The Washington Post.