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Clerics regret church abuse as Vatican denounces report

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Vatican: Stop 'smear campaign'
  • Vatican strongly denies reports pope was aware of an accused priest returning to pastoral work
  • Vatican: Archdiocese "rejects any other version of events as mere speculation"
  • French bishops express "shame and regret" for child abuse amid church scandal
  • French priests arrested on sexual abuse and child pornography charges

(CNN) -- Top Catholic clerics from France and Britain expressed shame, anger and regret Friday over a widening abuse scandal in the church that has reached Pope Benedict XVI's doorstep.

At the same time, the Vatican and Benedict's former German diocese strongly denied a newspaper report that said the pope was aware that a priest later convicted of molesting boys was returning to pastoral work.

They said the pope, then archbishop in Munich, Germany, had no knowledge of the decision to return the priest to resume his duties.

The archdiocese "rejects any other version of events as mere speculation," the Vatican said.

The Vatican and archdiocese were responding to a New York Times article published Friday that said the future pope was copied on a memo informing him the priest, the Rev. Peter Hullermann, would return to pastoral work within days of beginning psychiatric treatment for pedophilia.

A spokesman for the archdiocese, Bernhard Kellner, said Friday that the article consists of incorrect and old information.

Between 700 and 1,000 memos go to the archbishop each year, Kellner said, making it highly unlikely that the pope -- then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- would have read the memo mentioned in the Times. Kellner said that neither he nor the Times has the memo, and he doesn't know whether it still exists.

Kellner also said it was not so much a memo as a routine copy of a directive filed to the office of the archbishop and then archived.

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The pope's deputy at the time, the Rev. Gerhard Gruber, had said he signed the order allowing Hullermann to return to pastoral work, and he takes full responsibility for it.

French bishops also added their voice to the debate in a letter Friday, saying they "feel shame and regret for the abominable acts" perpetrated by some priests and religious figures in the Catholic church.

The bishops wrote the letter to Pope Benedict XVI as a "cordial message of support" amid the widening abuse scandal in the church.

They said they supported the pope's strong words of support for victims of the abuse in Ireland, which the pontiff expressed in a letter to Irish Catholics on Sunday.

"Those who committed these acts disfigure our church, hurt Christian communities, and extend suspicion on all members of the clergy," the French bishops wrote.

Even if the actions are down to a small number of priests, they wrote, "it is already too much."

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The letter was sent on the same day that prosecutors said a French priest has been arrested on sexual abuse and child pornography charges.

The Rev. Jacques Breton from the small village of Marcilly-le-Hayer was indicted on the charges Tuesday, prosecutor Alex Perrin confirmed. Marcilly-le-Hayer is in northeastern France, about 90 miles (145 km) southeast of Paris.

The sexual abuse charge involves a person older than 18 who filed the complaint, officials said. The priest has denied all the accusations.

Breton has been released from jail but is banned from contact with the alleged victim or any minors, officials said. Authorities said they are investigating whether there were other possible victims.

"This news deeply moved us all," said the bishop of nearby Troyes, Monseigneur Marc Stenger.

"Our first thought is for those who have been injured by these acts, the young, the victims, the families."

Also on Friday, the Catholic archbishop of Westminister described child abuse committed within the Catholic church and the concealment of it as "deeply shocking" and "totally unacceptable."

Archbishop Vincent Nichols made the comments in a letter published on the Diocese of Westminster's Web site.

Nichols said he felt shame and anger that the church was more concerned with protecting its reputation than believing the allegations of victims.

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But he also defended Pope Benedict XVI, pointing out that the pope previously headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in which he led many reforms of church law regarding abuse victims and offenders.

"He is not an idle observer," Nichols wrote. "His actions speak as well as his words."

CNN's Frederik Pleitgen in Berlin, Germany; Hada Messia in Rome, Italy; and Per Nyberg in London, England, contributed to this report