BOGOTA (AP) - A senior cardinal defended the Roman Catholic Church's practice of frequently not reporting sexual abusive priests to the police, saying Thursday it would have been like testifying against a family member at trial.
Colombian Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos also said in a radio interview that Pope Benedict XVI, formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was involved in a 2001 decision to praise a French bishop for shielding a priest who was convicted of raping minors.
"The law in nations with a well-developed judiciary does not force anyone to testify against a child, a father, against other people close to the suspect," Castrillon told RCN radio. "Why would they ask that of the church? That's the injustice. It's not about defending a pedophile, it's about defending the dignity and the human rights of a person, even the worst of criminals."
While the church stands by "those who truly were victims (of sexual abuse)," he added, "John Paul II, that holy pope, was not wrong when he defended his priests so that they were not, due to economic reasons, treated like criminal pedophiles without due process."
His comments came just days after the Vatican posted on its website guidelines telling bishops they should report abusive priests to police if civil laws require it. The Vatican has claimed that was long its policy, though it was never written before explicitly.
The Vatican posted the guidelines as a response to mounting criticism that it mandated a culture of secrecy that instructed bishops to keep abuse quiet, letting it fester unchecked for decades.
Outrage over the church's handling of sexual abuse allegations against priests is spreading across Latin America, where the large majority of more than 500 million people are Roman Catholics.
In Brazil, an 83-year-old priest wasdetained this week on allegations that he abused at least three boys, beginning when they were 12-years-old. A bishop in Brazil who oversaw three priests accused of sexual abuse acknowledged on Thursday the "shame and dishonor" brought upon the church.
Chile's bishops on Tuesday asked for forgiveness for past cases of abuse. On Thursday, a prosecutor announced a criminal investigation of a popular retired priest, Fernando Karadima, accused of sexually abusing five young men in his parish residence.
Castrillon - the 80-year-old Colombian cardinal - was an influential figure at the Vatican before his recent retirement from active duty, heading the Vatican's office for clergy as well as efforts to reconcile with ultraconservatives who had broken away from the church.
Recently the cardinal himself has been drawn into the international scandal over the church's handling of child abuse by priests due to the surfacing of the 2001 letter, which he wrote, praising the French bishop.
Castrillon said last week in Spain that he showed the letter to then-Pope John Paul II, who authorized him to send it to bishops worldwide.
On Thursday, he said the letter was the product of a high-level meeting at which Ratzinger was present.
"It was a meeting of cardinals. Therefore the current pope (Benedict XVI), who at that time was a cardinal, was present. The pope (John Paul II) was never at those meetings. However the Holy Father was indeed present when we spoke about this matter in the council, and the cardinals ruled."
At the time the letter was drafted, Castrillon was prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy and president of the Pontifical "Ecclesia Dei" Commission.
The cardinal also accused unnamed insiders and enemies elsewhere of feeding the sex abuse scandals hurting the Catholic Church.
"Unfortunately there are ... useful idiots inside (the church) who lend themselves to this type of persecution," Castrillon told RCN, using a term for people duped into sympathizing with a foe of their interests. "But I'm not afraid to say that in some cases it's within the Masons, together with other enemies of the church."
He would not give details, however, saying that "since I'm not stupid, I don't tell everything I know. Only drunks, children and idiots tell, and I'm not a child, nor a drunk, nor stupid."
This week, after the 2001 letter made news, a Catholic group in the United States announced it would find someone else to celebrate a special Mass this weekend marking the fifth anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI's inauguration. Advocates for abuse victims had objected to Castrillon's presence.