From the New York Times:

ROME — Pope Benedict XVI spoke on Thursday of the need for the faithful to do “penance” in light of “the attacks of the world that talks to us of our sins,” in an off-the-cuff portion of a homily that was his most direct reference to the sex abuse crisis that has focused on the Vatican itself.

“I have to say that we Christians, even in recent times, have often avoided the word ‘penance,’ which seems too harsh,” Benedict said at a Mass on Thursday morning, Vatican Radio reported.

“Now under the attacks of the world that talks to us of our sins, we see that the ability to perform penance is a grace and we see how it is necessary to perform penance, that is, to recognize what is wrong in our life,” he added.

The remarks seemed a marked shift in tone from comments by other top church officials, who have gone on the offensive against allegations that the Vatican, as well as Benedict himself before he was elected pope, had failed to act strongly against pedophile priests.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said that in mentioning “attacks” on the church, Benedict was “not exclusively” referring to the current crisis but also more generally to “the situation of the church in contemporary society.”

Father Lombardi said that Benedict had spoken “spontaneously,” as he sometimes does in homilies, and that his remarks had not yet been written up for distribution.

Even after issuing a letter to Irish Catholics on March 20 expressing shame for sex abuse in the Irish church, Benedict has been under pressure in recent weeks to address a sex abuse crisis that has also raised questions about his own actions as archbishop in Munich in 1980 and as prefect for the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, responsible for handling abuse cases.

He has said nothing direct about these questions, though as pope he has apologized several times, both in the United States and Australia, for the actions of pedophile priests and has met with victims.

Benedict’s remarks, delivered in a strained voice and broadcast on Vatican Radio, came at the end of his homily in a Mass with the Pontifical Biblical Commission in which he emphasized the need for “obedience to God.”

The pope’s 83rd birthday is Friday, and Monday is the fifth anniversary of his papacy. His two-day visit to Malta begins Saturday.

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