Pope Benedict XVI told a coterie of priests Thursday that the church must "repent," alluding for the first time in a month to the sex scandal embroiling the Vatican and leading critics to charge that the pontiff still has not gone far enough to confront the scandal head on.
While celebrating mass inside the Vatican for members of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, the pope said the church was "under attack from the world" and must "recognize what is wrong in our lives."
He did not specifically mention the abuse scandal.
"I must say, we Christians, even in recent times, have often avoided the word 'repent,' which seemed too tough," said Benedict, according to ANSA, the Italian news agency. "But now, under attack from the world, which has been telling us about our sins ... we realize that it's necessary to repent -- in other words, recognize what is wrong in our lives."
The pope has not addressed the scandal since last month, when he sent a letter to the Catholics of Ireland acknowledging a decades-long cover-up of child sex abuse by priests. In the weeks since the Irish scandal broke, the church has faced an onslaught of additional allegations from Germany and the United States.
The pope has been accused of covering up cases of abuse while serving as a cardinal and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, more personal allegations that he has yet to address.
Instead, Vatican spokesmen have responded to the allegations by deflecting criticism away from the church, equating news reports with "gossip" and blaming the abuse of children on gay priests.
During his Thursday homily, the pope seemed to say that repentance would be difficult and painful, but necessary.
"Open ourselves to forgiveness ... and let ourselves be transformed. The pain of repentance, which is a purification and transformation, is a grace because it is renewal and the work of divine mercy," ANSA quoted him saying.
Some critics of the church believe repentance, an article of the Catholic faith, is an important and necessary first step, but others believe the pope needs to take more concrete steps towards ridding the church of abusive clergymen.
"It is very strange that he would call repentance 'tough,' said the Rev. Richard McBrien, a Catholic priest and professor of theology at Notre Dame University. "Repentance is an intrinsic part of Christian practice.
"It surprises me that he would have said that, but it's more ridiculous that he has yet to actually repent," McBrien said. "This controversy that has reached even the highest office of the Vatican won't go away until the pope, himself, tells us what he knew, when he knew it, and what he's going to do about it."
"When someone says, 'I made a mistake,' people can be pretty understanding. He needs to say, 'I was wrong. It was a different time, but I'm not making excuses. I pledge myself as bishop of Rome to make sure the mistake doesn't happen again."
But for others, no amount of handwringing is acceptable and the pope should worry more about what he does than what he says.
"Even if he's explicit and it's public and he's eloquent and longwinded, rather than making vague comments to private audience, it's still just talk and talk protects no one," said David Clohessy, director of SNAP, which stands for the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.