Pope begs for forgiveness
Vatican City - Pope Benedict XVI on Friday begged forgiveness for the "abuse of the little ones" by paedophile priests and pledged to "do everything possible" to stop the scourge.
"And so it happened that, in this very year of joy for the sacrament of the priesthood, the sins of priests came to light, particularly the abuse of the little ones," Benedict said at a mass in St Peter's Square marking the end of the Roman Catholic Church's Year for Priests.
"We... insistently beg forgiveness from God and from the persons involved, while promising to do everything possible to ensure that such abuse will never occur again," he said before some 15 000 white-clad priests from around the world.
It was the pope's clearest apology to date over the paedophile priest scandals coupled with allegations of high-level cover-ups that have rocked Catholic churches in Europe and the United States since late last year.
With paedophilia, "the priesthood, whose task is to manifest God’s concern for our good, turns into its very opposite", lamented the 83-year-old pope, wearing white and gold vestments.
"In admitting men to priestly ministry and in their formation we will do everything we can to weigh the authenticity of their vocation and make every effort to accompany priests along their journey," Benedict vowed.
The pontiff has however repeatedly rejected any reconsideration of the centuries-old rule of celibacy for Catholic priests.
Priestly celibacy is "an act of faith and fidelity" towards God and a way to anticipate on earth the pureness of the afterlife, the pope said at a vigil here on Thursday.
Some senior Catholic prelates and intellectuals have called for a new discussion of the issue when considering the possible causes behind the sex abuse scandal.
To mark the end of the Year for Priests, the Italian Catholic Church on Tuesday thanked clergy for their dedication while under pressure from "sweeping accusations" of child sex abuse that "have caused bitterness and pain and cast suspicions on everyone."
The pope himself has faced allegations that, as archbishop of Munich and later as the Vatican's chief morals enforcer, he helped to protect predator priests.
Late last year, Ireland was rocked by two successive reports revealing widespread abuse mainly of boys by priests going back decades, coupled with the Church hierarchy's complicity in covering it up.
Revelations then spread to the pope's native Germany, Belgium, Austria, United States, Brazil and other countries.
Italy seemed unaffected by sex abuse revelations, but cases have been coming under the national spotlight in recent weeks.