Pope Benedict XVI today asked for forgiveness from God and from the victims of sexual abuse by priests, "particularly the abuse of the little ones."
Speaking in Italian to a sea of 15,000 white-clad priests attending Mass in St. Peter's square to celebrate the end of the Year of the Priest, the pope addressed the scandal of abuse by priests at the beginning of his homily.
"We too insistently beg forgiveness from God and from the persons involved, while promising to do everything possible to ensure that such abuse will never occur again," Benedict said.
The pope has publicly expressed sorrow and condemnation on a number of occasions in recent weeks for the sexual abuse of minors on the part of priests, but voicing regret at a celebration of priests was especially forceful and symbolic.
Benedict said it should come as no surprise that the sex abuse scandal that has shaken the church in recent months came during the year especially devoted to the priesthood.
"It was to be expected that this new radiance on the priesthood would not be pleasing to the 'enemy,'" Benedict told the priests, referring to Satan. "He would have rather preferred to see it disappear, so that God would ultimately be driven out of the world.
"And so it happened that, in this very year of joy for the sacrament of the priesthood, the sins of priests came to light."
Although the Year of the Priest, which was meant to celebrate the vocation to the priesthood and the good work done by priests worldwide, was tarnished by the abuse scandal that erupted in February, the Pope said today the occasion hasn't been ruined by those events, which were instead a call to action.
"Let us look upon all that happened as a summons to purification, as a task which we bring to the future and which makes us acknowledge and love all the more the great gift we have received from God," he said.
Benedict also promised that greater care would be taken in choosing future priests.
"In admitting men to priestly ministry and in their formation we will do everything we can to weigh the authenticity of their vocation and make every effort to accompany priests along their journey," he said.
The thousands of priests in St. Peter's square who had come in force to Rome in support of their pontiff listened attentively under a broiling sun, many donning white or yellow sun hats.
Benedict has made similar acknowledgment of wrongdoing and expressed sorrow on a number of recent occasions at the harm done to children by some priests, notably on his trip to Malta in April, during which he met with Maltese men who had been victims of sexual abuse as children by priests and shared their pain with tears in his eyes.
On the way to Portugal last month, he spoke to journalists accompanying him of the "sins from within the church." And in March, he wrote a pastoral letter to the Irish Catholics in which he said he was "deeply disturbed" by news "regarding the abuse of children and vulnerable young people" by members of the Irish Church.
The pope himself has been criticized for approving the reassignment of a priest accused of abuse 30 years ago when he was the head of the Diocese of Munich in Germany and for his role in handling past cases of sex abuse that were reported to the Vatican office he headed before he was elected pope.
Since becoming pope, Benedict has clarified and tightened rules for handling these cases within the church, and spoken out strongly in condemnation of the abuse, most notably today to the priests of the world.