Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Holy See's secretary of state, outraged gay advocacy groups, politicians and even the French government with his remarks Monday in Chile.
"Many psychologists and psychiatrists have demonstrated that there is no relation between celibacy and pedophilia," the Italian cardinal said. "But many others have demonstrated, I have been told recently, that there is a relation between homosexuality and pedophilia. That is true. That is the problem."
Responding to reporters' questions, Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi contended that Bertone was not talking about pedophilia in society at large, nor making any medical or psychological assertions. Rather, Bertone was "evidently" referring to statistics, recently supplied by the Holy See's own prosecutor handling sex abuse allegations against clergy, Lombardi said in a written statement.
Lombardi cited some of the statistics, from a March interview in a Catholic newspaper with Monsignor Charles Scicluna, the Vatican's abuse prosecutor.
The spokesman noted that Scicluna said the allegations involving "pedophilia in the strict sense" accounted for 10 percent of the cases, 60 percent of cases involved adolescents in homosexual relations, while the other 30 percent of cases involved adolescents in heterosexual relations.
In all, Scicluna told the publication of the Italian bishops conference, 300 of some 3,000 cases that his office handled from 2001 to this year involved "acts of true and actual pedophilia."
The Vatican has been increasingly on the defensive from unrelenting contentions that both church hierarchy, by trying to cover up rape and molestation, and church policy, by making celibacy a requirement for the priesthood, are major factors behind decades of often systematic sex abuse in parishes, orphanages, schools and other Catholic institutions around the world.
Church officials, pledging new policies and increased transparency ahead of Pope Benedict's upcoming trip to Malta, his first overseas visit since the scandal broke.
Nearly immediately after Bertone's comments at a news conference in Santiago, Chile's gay rights advocates denounced what they called a "perverse strategy" by the Vatican to "shirk its own ethical and legal responsibility" with a "spurious and disgusting" connection.
The French government bristled at what it saw as an offense to human rights efforts.
"This is an unacceptable association that we condemn," French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said in an online briefing. "France reiterates its resolute commitment to the fight against discrimination and prejudice linked to sexual orientation and gender identity,"
Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe also expressed his condemnation Wednesday for what he called "unexpected" and "regrettable" comments. He said the cardinal's "shocking link" was all the more dangerous because these positions "deliberately stigmatize an identity and harm the respect for diversity and individual liberty," said Delanoe.
The mayor, who came out as gay a decade ago, urged the church leadership, the scientific community and the international community to distance themselves from the comments.
Scicluna is a top prosecutor for sexual abuse cases at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the powerful Vatican office that cracks down on deviance, moral or theological.
Long headed by the future Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, both Ratzinger's and the congregation's work have come under attack by abuse victims for allegedly rebuffing or moving slowly on calls to remove molesting priests, essentially granting impunity to them and letting them keep ministering to minors.
Bertone and other cardinals have rushed to Benedict's defense, saying both as the congregation's chief and as a former German archbishop, he kept a hard line against abuse.