Unhappy birthday for Pope as Malta trip mired in controversy
POPE Benedict called on Catholics to pray for their church yesterday, his 83rd birthday, as more embarrassing details emerged on its sexual abuse crisis and a victim urged him to apologise while in Malta this weekend.
A day after saying the church must do penance for its sins, he told visiting benefactors from the United States: "In these days, I ask you to pray for the needs of the universal church" so it can regain "holiness, unity and missionary zeal".
Birthday greetings poured in from Catholic prelates and Italian politicians, but no official event was planned.
Dozens of cardinals are due to join Benedict at the Vatican on Monday for a lunch on the fifth anniversary of his election as pope.
Benedict's call for penance was a rare public reference to the scandals battering the church. They threaten to overshadow his trip today and tomorrow to Malta, originally meant to commemorate the 1,950th anniversary of the shipwreck there of Saint Paul, the great missionary of early Christianity.
"I wish to meet the Pope," Lawrence Grech, one of 10 Maltese men suing the church for alleged sexual abuse, told Reuters Television in Valletta.
Noting Benedict had met and apologised to abuse victims during visits to the United States and Australia, he said: "I don't think it's going to be hard to do the same thing in Malta."
Vatican spokesman Rev Federico Lombardi has said the Pope was ready to meet more victims -- but not under pressure from the media.
He could not say if a meeting would take place in Malta.
The Vatican was hit by another embarrassing revelation late on Thursday when a website posted a letter by a senior Curia cardinal heartily congratulating a French bishop in 2001 for not denouncing a self-confessed abusive priest to the police.
Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, who at the time headed the Vatican department in charge of priests around the world, told Bishop Pierre Pican of Bayeux-Lisieux he was a model for all bishops for his behaviour in the case that shocked France.
The priest, Rev Rene Bissey, was sentenced to 18 years in jail for sexually abusing 11 boys, and Pican got a suspended three-month sentence for not reporting the crimes.
"I congratulate you for not denouncing a priest to the civil administration," Castrillon Hoyos wrote.
Barbara Dorris of SNAP, a US-based support group for clerical sex abuse victims, described the letter as "one of the most telling and troubling" among many internal church documents now being published to expose the extent of the abuse crisis.
"In what other institution on this planet does a top official praise a colleague for hiding a criminal from the police?" she asked in a statement.
Spokesman Lombardi raised eyebrows among Vatican watchers by not denying the letter's authenticity and only saying it showed it was right to assign handling of all clerical abuse cases with minors to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- now the Pope -- in 2001.
The Vatican rarely hints at strains within the hierarchy in public. 'Vatican disses one of its own on sex abuse', wrote the US-based weekly 'National Catholic Reporter'.