VATICAN CITY (AFP) - Ã¢â‚¬â€œ Condemnation from gay groups and the French government forced the Vatican into damage control Wednesday over remarks by the pope's right-hand man linking paedophilia to homosexuality.
The Vatican issued what spokesman Federico Lombardi called a "clarification" of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone's assertion Monday that homosexuality -- not celibacy -- is the "problem" that causes Catholic priests to molest children.
In the highly unusual statement, the Vatican said Roman Catholic Church officials were not "competent" to speak on psychological issues concerning general society.
Lombardi told AFP the statement was aimed at "clarifying" Bertone's remarks and should not be seen as the Holy See "distancing" itself from them.
Bertone's comment that "many" psychologists and psychiatrists had demonstrated a link between paedophilia and homosexuality, but not the vow of celibacy, drew official ire from France on Wednesday.
"This is an unacceptable linkage and we condemn this," said foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero, joining a chorus of criticism from gay rights groups and editorial writers.
An Italian group Tuesday led gay fury over the remarks, which came as the Church battles paedophile priest scandals in Europe and the United States and allegations that the hierarchy has helped to cover up for abusers.
"The truth is that Bertone is clumsily trying to shift attention to homosexuality and away from the focus on new crimes against children that emerge every day," said Aurelio Mancuso, former president of gay rights association Arcigay.
"This faux pas by the Vatican demonstrates one thing only: great desperation and great impotence," a Spanish gay rights group, COLEGAS, added Wednesday.
A Catholic gay association in Portugal, Novos Rumos, said remarks such as Bertone's "deepen the gulf between the Church as a community of believers and a certain hierarchy".
Wednesday's Vatican statement added more fuel to the fire with a reference to Church statistics defining paedophilia in the "strict sense" as applying to pre-adolescent children.
"That's a ridiculous and unfounded hair-splitting distinction that many American bishops initially tried as well," said David Clohessy, executive director of the US pressure group SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests).
"It's grossly inaccurate, totally insensitive and frankly totally wrong," Clohessy told AFP.
According to the Church statistics, made public last month, 10 percent of some 3,000 cases reported to Vatican authorities in the past decade concerned paedophilia in the "strict sense" and the other 90 percent concerned sex between priests and adolescents.
Sixty percent of the cases involved adolescent boys and 30 percent concerned adolescent girls.
Vatican expert Bruno Bartoloni said Church officials were "piling up the gaffes without realising their impact".
Lombardi and other Vatican officials have suggested that the Church is unfairly singled out for paedophilia, noting that it is a widespread social phenomenon.
"All objective and informed people know that the issue is much wider, and to focus accusations only on the Church leads to a skewed perspective," Lombardi said last month.
But Clohessy said: "If eight percent of plumbers molest and seven percent of priests molest, it's still a horrific crisis.
"And plumbers who molest don't have a powerful worldwide monarchy behind them to help them get away with their crime."
He added: "There are many priests who have been caught molesting 75, 100, 150 kids. Find me the schoolteacher or scout leader who have been caught doing that. You can't, because in other institutions, predators get caught and are ousted more quickly than they are in the Church."
Vandals have weighed in with anonymous fury, daubing a foot-high offensive slogan over the door to the pope's childhood home in Germany, and spray-painting the word "paedophile" on a billboard advertising the pope's upcoming weekend visit to Malta.
Germany's Roman Catholic Church is meanwhile losing thousands of members in its southern heartland, the Church and a media report said.
In Switzerland, the justice ministry in the eastern Grisons canton is considering whether to open an inquiry following a complaint made against members of the Chur diocese, spokesman Maurus Eckert told AFP.
An identical complaint against another diocese was lodged in the northwestern canton of Solothurn, the Swiss agency ATS said.