By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Co-editor
(CNN) - Retired Pope Benedict XVI says he never tried to cover up the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests, breaking his post-retirement silence to address one of the greatest threats to his legacy as a church leader.
In a lengthy letter published in La Repubblica, an Italian newspaper, the former pope answered theological and moral arguments from Piergiorgio Odifreddi, an Italian atheist and mathematician who had written about Benedict in 2011.
Earlier this month, La Repubblica also published a letter to its atheist editor from Pope Francis, Benedict's successor.
Since his retirement on February 28, Benedict has mostly stayed out of the public eye, living in a converted monastery behind St. Peter's Basilica and keeping his promise to steer clear – at least publicly – of church business.
Benedict's new letter, coming on the heels of Francis' blockbuster interview published last week, makes for a remarkable week for papal communication. Most modern popes have been fairly inaccessible - to the media, at least.
MORE ON CNN: Pope Francis: Church can't 'interfere' with gays
In Benedict's letter, published Tuesday, the former pope said: "As far as you mentioning the moral abuse of minors by priests, I can only, as you know, acknowledge it with profound consternation. But I never tried to cover up these things."
Benedict, who now has the title "pope emeritus," also said that even though sociologists have determined that the percentage of priests accused of abusing minors is not markedly higher than other professions, that's "not reassuring" for the church.
Critics answer that it's the not just the crimes but the coverups that made the church's response to sexual abuse so scandalous.
"Over a clerical career that lasted more than six decades, we can’t think of a single child-molesting bishop, priest, nun, brother or seminarian that Benedict ever exposed," said Barbara Dorris of the U.S.-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
Before he was elected pope, Benedict, formerly known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which assumed responsibility for handling priest abuse cases late in his career.
As pope, he issued revised guidelines in 2010 making it easier to remove abusive priests from the ministry, apologized for the "shame" the scandal brought on the church and met with victims, including in the United States in 2008.
Critics like SNAP dismissed those moves as too little, too late.
In the United States alone, nearly 17,000 people have come forward with abuse claims, and the church has paid $2.6 billion in settlements, therapy bills, lawyers' fees and expenses related to removing priests from the ministry, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
MORE ON CNN: Can Pope Francis make his vision a reality?
In Tuesday's letter, and on past occasions, Benedict has decried the "filth" of sexual abuse in the church. But, the emeritus pope said, it is not "specific to Catholicism." He also chided Odifreddi for neglecting the good the church has done.
"If you do not remain silent about evil in the Church, we must not, however, be silenced even by the great shining path of goodness and purity, which Christian faith has traced through the centuries," Benedict said.
Pope Francis said in April, in one of his first statements as pope, that the church must take "decisive action" regarding cases of child sexual abuse and protecting children.
It's a shame that we'll never know what percentage of those 17,000 were never abused, but jumped on the bandwagon to share in the monetary awards.
ratzinger was actually an honest person.
Actually, the Pope Emeritus was not known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger before he became pope. He was known as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. You're welcome.
And we're supposed to believe The Rat. . .
u believe hitler
Imagine that, 2.6 BILLION DOLLARS? This is the same church that is always claiming that it's poor and needs donations from its parishioners. The number alone bears out that lie for what it truly is.
The clergy, and I don't just mean the catholics, are a bunch of hypocrites. They have the biggest legal racket in the world while most of us remain poor and/or homeless.
Cover the evil actions under the shield of a deity that even its own existence is under question, while the innocent suffers silently under this religious/theocracy that has a strangling hold on the humans since the stone age
Wow, he DENIED it.
I guess I am placated.
Thanks for clearing that up
little girl, where is but hurt? pack ur bags honey. u will receive a warm welcome where u r destined. lol
Largest lawsuit in U.S. history, danny boy. And your little perverted girlfriend is going to prison
still not fellating a 12 gauge, are ya faith?
If they defrocked every gay priest, there would be no priests. Idiot.
There is no demonstrated link between se'xual orientation, and child molestation, double idiot.
Read the John Jay College of Law report, (that is if you can read).
You can create a name in WordPress which requires a password.
Your name will then be blue.
No one can steal that.
Many of us had to do it.
It means your retarded
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.