pope portugal plane

Pope Benedict on the plane to Portugal, with spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi at right, 11 May 2010/Stefano Rellandini

Pope Benedict said on Tuesday that the greatest threat to Catholicism came from “sin within the Church,” one if his most forthright comments so far on a sexual abuse scandal that has created turmoil in the church. The Church has “a very deep need” to recognize that it must do penitence for its sins and “accept purification,” he said.

“Today we see in a truly terrifying way that the greatest persecution of the Church does not come from outside enemies but is born of sin within the Church,” Benedict told reporters on the plane to Portugal, replying to a question about the scandal.

The 83-year-old German pontiff, facing the worst crisis of his five-year-old papacy, said the Church had to seek forgiveness from victims of sexual abuse but also recognized that “forgiveness cannot be a substitute for justice.”

Benedict, who was due to hold a large outdoor Mass on Tuesday afternoon, repeated his call for greater moral responsibility in financial decisions and acknowledged the Church should in the past have spoken out more on economics.