VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI's personal priest asked the pontiff on Friday to declare a day of fasting and penance to express the Roman Catholic Church's solidarity with the victims of clerical sex abuse.
In a strongly worded lecture, the Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa denounced the "abominations" committed inside the church "by its own ministers and pastors" and declared that the church has "paid a high price for this."
"The moment has come, after the emergency, to do the most important thing of all: to cry before God," said Cantalamessa, in a pre-Christmas talk delivered in a Vatican chapel. The pope was in the audience.
The Vatican said it had no immediate comment on the speech, which Cantalamessa sent to some Vatican reporters.
Cantalamessa suggested that the church "indicate a day of fasting and penance, at local and national level, where the problem was particularly strong, to publicly express repentance before God and solidarity with the victims."
He also took a swipe at ostensibly penitent clergy who, he said, were "seeking to profit from the sensation, even profiting from their own sins, releasing interviews, writing memoirs in an attempt to throw the blame on their superiors and the religious community."
An advocacy group for victims of sexual abuse by clergy said the church should do more than call for penance and fasting.
"Decisive action protects kids, not nice gestures," Barbara Blaine, national president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said in a statement. "We'd much rather the pope discipline complicit bishops instead, because that's what is just, appropriate and effective."
Blaine alleged that hundreds of bishops have covered up thousands of sex crimes.
Mary Pat Fox, president of Voice of the Faithful, a lay U.S. Catholic reform group created in response to the molestation scandal, said the comments were a hopeful sign that Vatican leaders were beginning to understand the depth of the crisis. However, Fox said church officials should go further by punishing bishops who sheltered guilty clergy.
"We need justice and accountability," Fox said.
Although Benedict's reaction was not immediately known, the pontiff recently said the church must urgently rebuild confidence and trust damaged by clerical sex abuse.
He told Irish bishops in October that "the wounds caused by such acts run deep." Roman Catholic Churches in both Ireland and the U.S. have been hard hit by the scandal.
The speech marked the pope's first explicit comments on the subject since he became pontiff.
In March 2005, Benedict, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, denounced what he called "filth" in the church "even among those ... in the priesthood." Those words were seen by many as a possible denunciation of the clergy sexual abuse scandals.