Vatican City • Pope Francis has provoked a debate within the Catholic Church after being quoted as saying that one in 50 Catholic clerics is a pedophile.
In the latest example of his get-tough stance against sex abuse — and his signature style of frank answers to tough questions — the pope told the Italian daily La Repubblica that the sexual abuse of children was like "leprosy" in the church, and he pledged to "confront it with the severity it requires."
But the exclusive interview with 90-year-old veteran journalist Eugenio Scalfari published Sunday drew an immediate reaction from the Vatican that disputed the accuracy of the pontiff's quotes.
"Even we have this leprosy at home. Many of my advisers who are fighting it with me are giving me reliable data that estimates pedophilia inside the church at a level of 2 percent," the pope was quoted as saying. "This figure should reassure me, but I have to tell you that it does not reassure me at all. Instead I consider it very serious. Among the 2 percent who are pedophiles are priests, and even bishops and cardinals."
The number would represent 8,000 priests, based on the latest Vatican figures that count a total of 414,000 priests globally.
Last year, Francis strengthened the Vatican's laws against child abuse and recently begged forgiveness when he met for the first time as pope with six victims of clergy abuse.
In his latest interview, the pope also hinted at finding "a solution" to priestly celibacy, raising the possibility that the church may one day lift the ban on married priests. The Vatican's chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, disputed the quotes attributed to the pope about pedophile cardinals and the possible changes on celibacy.
Lombardi said this was not an "interview" in the traditional sense since Scalfari's questions and the pope's answers were not recorded or transcribed, and warned journalists to be careful in recycling the pope's answers. Still, he said, the "overall theme of the article captures the spirit of the conversation between the Holy Father and Mr. Scalfari."
Asked by Scalfari whether priests might one day be permitted to marry, Francis noted that celibacy was established "900 years after the death" of Christ. "It will take time, but there are solutions and we will find them," Francis was quoted as saying.
Until now, the Vatican has declined to quantify the extent of clerical sexual abuse scandals in the church. Statistics are usually available only for countries in the developed world.
In May, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican's ambassador to the United Nations agencies in Geneva, told a U.N. panel that the church had addressed the "worldwide scourge" of clerical sexual abuse. He said that 848 clerics had been expelled between 2004 and 2013, and the church had paid $2.5 billion in compensation to victims of clerical abuse in the U.S. alone.