Vatican City -- Pope John Paul II, in a letter released today, weighed in for the first time on 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.
As they comfort 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 three sentences referring to the scandals, the 81-year-old pope presented priests as among the victims "personally and profoundly afflicted" by the unnamed sins of 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 abuse victims is likely to disappoint those Catholics who were expecting a fuller, 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 about the letter, a top Vatican official, Cardinal Dario Castrillón Hoyos, lost his patience with reporters who pressed to know why the pope had not yet spoken about the sexual abuse directly, or addressed it more substantially in the letter.
Although the sex scandals are important, the cardinal said, "The pope is worried over peace in the world."
Cardinal Castrillón, who leads 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 that he wanted to emphasize was that there had not yet been any good studies on what percentage of priests are pedophiles, compared to people in other lines of work.
The cardinal answered only one question on the scandals, otherwise sticking to a prepared text. That one question was whether Vatican officials had lost confidence in Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, who has been under pressure to resign over his handling of sex abuse by priests. In response, Cardinal Castrillón said the Vatican continued to support all local officials dealing with the scandals.
The cardinal's only off-the-cuff comment was that he found it interesting that so many of the questions about the sex scandals were coming from English-speaking reporters. "It's already an X-ray of the problem that so many of the questions were in English," he said.
Critics of the lack of a more forceful Vatican response to the scandals have repeatedly said that part of the problem is that Rome tends to see it as a mostly American issue.
When one reporter at the news conference called out, "We had specific questions, Eminence," the cardinal responded by saying that the correct focus of the pope's letter was not the scandals at all. The letter was, in fact, mostly a meditation on the sacrament of Penance, a topic that drew no questions from reporters.
Another reporter persisted, "But can't you answer our questions?" and Cardinal Castrillón snapped, "Excuse me, I didn't interrupt your questions, I hope you won't interrupt my answer."
At the news conference, the cardinal had at first said he wanted to hear all the questions reporters had before answering. He was then peppered with various inquiries: Why hasn't the pope himself spoken out on the sex issue? Was he being kept informed about the specific allegations?
But then, after hearing all the questions, Cardinal Castrillón pulled out a two-page statement and read it.
That statement said the pope had already dealt with the scandals, and referred to a one-paragraph apology to victims in a recent document on a bishop's conference held several years ago.
The cardinal said he could not deviate from his prepared remarks because "in this particularly difficult moment, I cannot improvise."
He blamed the problem of sex abuse by priests in part on the current "environment of pansexuality."
New rules that will make sure all such allegations against Catholic clerics are reported directly to Rome were "serious and severe," he said, "and conceived within the apostolic tradition of dealing with internal things from the inside."
He added that that statement should not be taken to mean that sex abuse cases should not also be dealt with in the civil courts.
The news conference ended rather abruptly a few minutes later, after an aide to the cardinal looked at his watch and said it was time to go.