Pope slams paedophile priests
Lisbon - Pope Benedict XVI heads for Fatima on Wednesday, the highlight of his visit to Portugal, hoping to have turned a corner on the sex scandals haunting the Church after making his strongest condemnation yet of paedophile priests.
In what may yet been seen as a watershed in his battle against the Church's biggest crisis in decades, Benedict on Tuesday said the "truly terrifying" problems it faced came not from its enemies, but from sin within the institution itself.
"With this Benedict XVI wanted to 'resolve' right at the start of his visit a controversy that could overshadow the trip and at the same time make it clear before believers and non-believers that his position is not to tolerate inadmissible practices," said the Portuguese daily Publico in an editorial.
"Tackling the problem head on is the path. Many have suggested it. Benedict XVI has said it in such a clear way that the world will certainly thank him."
The effect may be to cast the often dour 83-year-old, a stranger to the sound bites that made his predecessor John Paul II so popular, in a more sympathetic light.
Benedict's personal pilgrimage to the shrine of Fatima, 120km northeast of Lisbon, is being billed by the Church as the highlight of his visit and a giant outdoor mass has been planned for as many as 500 000 people on Thursday.
Vast crowds turned out to cheer Benedict in Lisbon on the first day of his visit on Tuesday, many holding up banners in support of the beleaguered pope. His visit has been overshadowed by allegations that the Church has for years been protecting paedophile priests from prosecution by merely moving abusers to other parishes.
A US victims' support group Snap dismissed the comments as meaningless and a poor substitute for action.
"Previous to this, he was pointing fingers at the press, saying you were anti-Catholic. He said victims who spoke up were engaging in petty gossip," said its founder Barbara Blaine.
"He may have stopped that extreme pointing of fingers, but he hasn't taken any action that will protect children," she said.
Experienced Vatican watchers see an important shift in papal tactics nonetheless.
High profile "Vaticanista" Marco Politi said the pope's comments were "above all an internal message" aimed at members of the clergy "who are resisting the pope's volition for zero tolerance" and are practising "a form of silent sabotage".
Writing in the Italian daily Il Fatto, Politi said Benedict "is showing his absolute will to turn the page of centuries during which the Church has done everything so that these matters do not come to light".
The Vatican has previously blamed the media and the Church's opponents for escalating the scandal. Cardinals accused the media of anti-Catholic "propaganda" and the pope's personal preacher, making an annual Easter holy week address, even compared the attacks on the Church as similar to anti-Semitism.
"There was a very real risk of victimisation. Some members of the Roman Curia put themselves into a state of siege and were waiting for the black cloud to dissipate without anything having to change inside the Church," said another noted Vatican watcher, Giancarlo Zizola.
Zizola said that far from being "isolated" on the issue, the pope has adopted a "very reformist" position and "wants to benefit from this disaster to enact deep change within the Church".
The pope celebrated mass in private at the chapel of the papal nunciature in Lisbon early Wednesday before addressing a meeting of leading lights of Portuguese culture, including the 101-year-old filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira.