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Italy prelate sees campaign against Church over abuse

MYT 1:45:38 AM

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The Catholic Church is being unfairly singled out for criticism of sexual abuse of children by priests and will not tolerate campaigns to discredit it, the powerful head of Italy's bishops said on Monday.

A woman holds rosary beads during a Sunday mass in a Church in Armagh, Northern Ireland, March 21, 2010. (REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton)

Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco spoke as the Vatican tried to stem a scandal gripping the Church that has swept across Europe, with more revelations of sexual abuse of children by priests over several decades surfacing almost daily.

"For a long time, the phenomenon of paedophilia has been tragically widespread in different sectors and various categories of people and various places, even non-Catholic," he said in a speech to Italian bishops.

Bagnasco, repeating a defence by many churchmen recently, said he did not want to "minimise or relativise" the seriousness of paedophilia cases in the Church but that it was important to recognise what he called the general scope of the problem.

As the Catholic Church has been swept up by paedophilia scandals in recent years, churchmen have said the problem exists throughout society and in much higher percentages in families.

But critics have dismissed this view, saying priests and nuns entrusted with the care of children should be held to much higher moral standards. They have also accused the Church of concealing abuses for decades under a blanket of secrecy.

Speaking two days after Pope Benedict apologised to victims of sexual abuse in Ireland, Bagnasco said the Church was "not afraid of the truth, however painful and detestable" but would not accept any "generalised campaigns to discredit it".

SCANDAL SPREADING

As the scandal has spread in a number of European countries, including Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the pope's native Germany, some bishops have lambasted the media, accusing it of being hostile and unfair.

"The cover-up has gone on for centuries, not just in the Church ... it's going on today in families, in communities, in societies. Why are you singling out the Church?" Bishop Christopher Jones of Elphin, Ireland, said last week.

Bishop Gerhard Ludwing Mueller of Regensburg, Germany, decried "a campaign against the Church" in the media and accused journalists of biased reporting.

"They (the media) are manipulating the people who sit in front of a television or open up a newspaper with their twisted and shortened reports," he said.

The pope's letter to the people of Ireland was in response to a damning government report of cover-ups of sexual abuse of children by priests for decades in Dublin diocese.

Benedict and Italy's bishops found support on Monday from Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, said in a statement the pope and the Church were victims of "prejudiciously hostile feelings".

There have been relatively few reports of child abuse by Italian clergy but a senior Vatican official said in a newspaper interview this month he fears there may be more.

"So far the dimensions of the problem (in Italy) don't seem dramatic, although what worries me is a certain culture of silence that I see as still too widespread here," said Monsignor Charles Scicluna, the Vatican's prosecutor for sex abuse cases.

(Writing by Philip Pullella; additional reporting by Tom Heneghan in Paris and Erik Kirschbaum in Berlin, editing by Paul Taylor)

(For more on faith and ethics, see the Reuters religion blog FaithWorld http://blogs.reuters.com/faithworld)

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