(VATICAN CITY) - Pope John Paul II on Thursday broke his silence on the sex abuse cases rocking the Roman Catholic Church, saying the ``grave scandal'' was casting a ``dark shadow of suspicion'' over all priests.
In an annual message to priests worldwide, the pope said ``as priests we are personally and profoundly afflicted by the sins of some of our brothers who have betrayed the grace of ordination.''
He said they had succumbed ``to the most grievous forms'' of what he called, using the Latin phrase, ``mystery of evil.''
``Grave scandal is caused, 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 pope said.
John Paul said the Church ``shows her concern for the victims and strives to respond in truth and justice to each of these painful situations.''
It was the first time the pope publicly addressed the issue since widescale accusations of sexual misconduct by priests surfaced in the United States in recent months. The accusations have led to the resignation of one bishop, from Palm Beach, Fla., and tarnished the reputation of Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston for failing to take action against a child-molesting priest.
The problem has worldwide implications for the Church.
In January, the Catholic Church in Ireland agreed to a landmark $110 million payment to children abused by clergy over decades. More than 20 priests, brothers and nuns have been convicted of molesting children.
Sexual abuse cases involving cover-ups have also been reported in England, France and Australia, among other countries.
John Paul has been described as particularly saddened by sexual harassment allegations leveled against the archbishop of Poznan in the pope's native Poland. Archbishop Juliusz Paetz, who worked with John Paul at the Vatican and was sent by him to Poland in 1982, denied the allegations in a letter read in parishes last Sunday.
For years, the Vatican viewed such reports as attempts to discredit the church or as part of an orchestrated campaign against celibacy.
At a Vatican news conference to present the pope's letter, Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos said John Paul was ``supportive'' of bishops and priests in dioceses shaken by the scandal.
But he refused to answer specific questions about the sex scandal, reading a written statement that defended the Church's efforts to uphold morality and punish wrongdoers within their ranks.
He cited a study showing that 3 percent of American clergymen had the ``tendency'' to abuse minors and that 0.3 percent were pedophiles.
He said there were no comparative studies for other categories ``including parents and relatives.''