VATICAN CITY (AP) – Pope Benedict XVI said Saturday that clerical sex abuses were “egregious crimes” that had damaged the standing of the Catholic Church and its clergy, in his first explicit remarks on the subject since becoming pontiff.

Speaking to a group of bishops from Ireland – an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country where all but one seminary has closed following repeated scandals – Benedict said it was urgent “to rebuild confidence and trust.”

“In the exercise of your pastoral ministry, you have had to respond in recent years to many heart-rending cases of sexual abuse of minors,” the pontiff told the bishops. “These are all the more tragic when the abuser is a cleric.”

“The wounds caused by such acts run deep,” Benedict said.

The pope told the bishops that as they continue to deal with the problem, “it is important to establish the truth of what happened in the past, to take whatever steps are necessary to prevent it from occurring again, to ensure that the principles of justice are fully respected and, above all, to bring healing to the victims and to all those affected by these egregious crimes.”

Benedict mentioned only the crisis in Ireland, but his comments were likely to resonate in other nations where the church has been plagued by sex abuse scandals, such as the U.S.

In Ireland, the church’s moral standing, Mass attendance and applications for priesthood have plummeted since 1994, when the first major scandal involving a pedophile priest triggered the collapse of the government of then-Prime Minister Albert Reynolds.

Since then, both church and state in the country, where nearly 90 percent of its 4 million residents identify themselves as Catholic, have struggled to come to terms with the scale of abuse committed by priests. All but one seminary has closed.

The pope said however that “the fine work and selfless dedication of the great majority of priests and religious in Ireland should not be obscured by the transgressions of some of their brethren.”

He added, “I am certain that the people understand this, and continue to regard their clergy with affection and esteem.”

Benedict has rarely spoken openly about sex abuse cases.

Some of his strongest comments came in March 2005, shortly before he was made pope. In meditations composed for the Good Friday procession at the Colosseum, 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.

In May, Benedict asked the elderly founder of the conservative order Legionaries of Christ, Mexican priest the Rev. Marcial Maciel, to stop celebrating public Masses and live a life of “prayer and penance” following a Vatican investigation into allegations he sexually abused seminarians decades ago.

The decision marked the first major abuse penalty approved by Benedict as pope, and showed he was not afraid pursuing prelates who enjoyed particular favor with his predecessor, John Paul II.

In the United States, sex abuse allegations have shaken the church, with 783 new credible claims last year, most of which date back decades, and costs of nearly $1.5 billion since 1950, according to figures compiled from various studies by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The total number of accusations against Catholic clergy in the United States now stands at more than 12,000 since 1950.

AP-ES-10-28-06 1433EDT

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