VATICAN CITY — Amid a three-week conference of hundreds of bishops on family issues, Pope Francis issued an unusual and unexpected public apology on Wednesday for scandals that have bedeviled the church.
“I would like to ask for forgiveness in the name of the church for the scandals that have happened in this last period both in Rome and at the Vatican,” the pope told assembled faithful as he opened his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square.
“I ask for your forgiveness,” he said humbly.
The pope did not say which scandals he was referring to, but even just in recent days, there has been no shortage of headline-grabbing news to distract from the Synod of Bishops, which is in the middle of a divisive, three-week discussion of issues like the church’s approach to gays and to divorced Catholics who remarry without obtaining an annulment.
Last week, in a step seemingly timed to the synod, a Vatican official publicly announced he was gay, while issuing a denunciation of homophobia within the church. He was dismissed.
At the same time, the Italian news media has been filled with reports that a priest at a parish in Rome had had sexual relations with men, and that his superiors knew.
Also last week, a priest in northern Italy said in a television interview that in many pedophilia cases the abused children were at fault, because they were seeking affection that they did not get at home. Priests, he said, could sometimes succumb.
The remarks created an uproar, forcing the priest’s dismissal.
In his address, referring to a Gospel passage, Francis said: “Jesus is a realist and says, ‘It’s inevitable that scandals happen, but woe be to the man who causes the scandal.’ ”
One support group for victims of clergy abuse said the pope’s apology was empty as long as he did not act more decisively in stopping clergy sex scandals. “It’s more important that Francis stop abuse than that we forgive him for it,” the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP, said in a statement. “But that takes courage, the courage that popes and bishops continue to lack.”
Asked about the pope’s public apology on Wednesday, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said the pope had pointedly not identified any one scandal, adding that if he had wanted to, he could have.
Indeed, some Vatican watchers interpreted the pope’s apology as a pointed reference to yet another scandal, more central to the synod itself.
This week, an Italian blog published what it said was a private letter written to the pope before the gathering of some 300 prelates had even begun.
In it, a group of 13 conservative cardinals expressed their concern that the outcome of the synod would be a foregone conclusion, and not the result of open debate.
After the letter was published on Monday, several of the cardinals cited as signatories denied any involvement, while other cardinals said they had signed a letter with a markedly different content, adding to the intrigue.
The letter not only highlighted the liberal and conservative divisions within the Vatican, but also prompted a frenzy of behind-the-scenes speculation in the news media that the pope’s authority was being challenged, or even subverted.
Some said it evoked the so-called VatiLeaks scandal in 2012 — when letters leaked by Pope Benedict XVI’s butler revealed internal clashes and allegations of corruption and cronyism at the Vatican. Benedict eventually become the first pope in 600 years to resign.
On Tuesday, the Vatican confirmed that the letter was authentic, but called it a “disruption that was not intended by the signatories (at least by the most authoritative),” and said that it would be “inappropriate to allow it to have any influence.”
Francis opened the synod 10 days ago by urging participants to speak freely and without reservation.
Interviewed by the Catholic Channel on SiriusXM satellite radio on Tuesday, the archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, one of the signatories of the leaked letter, said his intention in writing to the pope was to raise some genuine concerns about the procedural elements of the synod, given that the pope has “urged us to be as honest with him as possible.”
“I didn’t think it was controversial at all,” he said.
On Wednesday, Father Lombardi asked that questions about the letter be put to rest. “It has already gotten a bigger echo than it merited,” he said.