Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI: Has broken his self-imposed silence. Photo: Getty Images

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has broken his self-imposed silence with a lengthy letter to a prominent atheist in which he defended himself from accusations that he did not do enough to bring to justice sexually abusive priests.

The former pontiff spoke of his ‘‘profound consternation’’ that ‘‘evil’’ had entered so deeply into the Roman Catholic faith. But he denied that he had, either as pope or previously as head of the Vatican office dealing with abuse cases, tried to cover up the scandals that tarnished the Church’s reputation around the world.

‘‘I never tried to cover these things up,’’ he wrote.

‘‘That the power of evil penetrated so far into the interior world of the faith is a suffering that we must bear, but at the same time must do everything to prevent it from repeating.

‘‘Neither is it comforting to know that, according to research, the percentage of priests who commit these crimes isn’t any higher than the percentage of other similar professions.

‘‘Regardless, one shouldn’t present this deviation as if it were something specific to Catholicism.’’

The letter was sent to Piergiorgio Odifreddi, an atheist mathematician, who in 2011 wrote a book titled, 'Dear Pope, I’m Writing to You'.

In his book, Odifreddi posed a series of polemical arguments about the Catholic faith, including the church’s sex abuse scandal.

The letter was reprinted by the leading Italian newspaper La Repubblica, and was the first published statement from Benedict since he said on retirement that he would live out his years ‘‘hidden from the world’’.

It discussed topics such as the nature of Catholic belief, the conflict between good and evil, and evolution, came two weeks after La Repubblica published a similar letter from his successor Pope Francis on atheism and agnosticism.

The Vatican said the timing of the two documents was a coincidence, rather than a concerted attempt by the two pontiffs to launch a fresh engagement with non-believers.

But the fact that a former pontiff and his successor wrote letters on the same issue within days of each other underlined the peculiarity of a situation in which, for the first time in centuries, two popes live virtually under the same roof.

While Pope Francis lives in a Vatican guesthouse called the Casa Santa Marta, his predecessor is living out his retirement in a former convent a few hundred yards away. It is not known how often the two men meet as they move around within the walls of the tiny sovereign state but they share the same private secretary - Archbishop Georg Ganswein.

Benedict’s assertion that he had done what he could to end sexual abuse by priests was disputed by groups representing the victims of paedophile clergy.

‘‘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 United States-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

‘‘In the Church’s entire history, no one knew more but did less to protect kids than Benedict. As head of CDF, thousands of cases of predator priests crossed his desk. Did he choose to warn families or call police about even one of those dangerous clerics? No. That, by definition, is a cover-up.’’