( AFP ) - Pope Benedict XVI has berated US bishops for their poor handling of the child sex scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic church, but also laid part of the blame on the breakdown of values in US society.
Benedict told a gathering of bishops on Wednesday they had "sometimes very badly handled" the decades-old problem of pedophile priests. But he urged efforts "to address the sin of abuse within the wider context of sexual mores."
"What does it mean to speak of child protection when pornography and violence can be viewed in so many homes through media widely available today?" the pontiff said on the first full day of his US visit.
Instead, he suggested as a remedy an urgent reassessment of "the values underpinning society."
Describing clerics who sexually abuse children as "gravely immoral," the octogenarian pope warned that the scourge of pedophilia "is found not only in your dioceses but in every sector of society."
"It calls for a determined, collective response," he said, but did not outline any firm action that the Vatican intended to take to purge the church of pedophile priests.
Instead, he had measured praised for the efforts made so far by the US church to heal the wounds left by the scandal.
"Your efforts to heal and protect are bearing great fruit," he told the bishops.
"If they are to achieve their full purpose, however, the programs you have adopted need to be placed in a wider context," the pope said, urging church leaders to join with parents, teachers, and the media to protect children.
"Children deserve to grow up with a healthy understanding of sexuality and its proper place in human relationships," the pope said in a speech delivered after evening prayer in the crypt of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
"They should be spared the degrading manifestations and the crude manipulation of sexuality so prevalent today."
The US church was plunged into the worst crisis in its 200-year history in 2002 when the Archbishop of Boston confessed he had protected a priest who had sexually abused young members of his church.
After the scandal blew up, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops drafted a charter for the protection of children and has issued an annual report outlining progress made in implementing the plan.
Last year, 689 new allegations of abuse were lodged, and the church paid out 615 million dollars (400 million euros) to settle child sex abuse cases involving members of the clergy -- 54 percent more than the previous year -- the annual progress report said.
Victim support groups and activists accuse bishops of covering up for predator priests or, worse, of sexually molesting children themselves, and have called for firm action from the Vatican against all abusers.
In his speech Wednesday, the pope did not outline any concrete steps that would be taken, but urged the bishops to give more guidance to priests, who "have experienced shame over what has occurred."