London: The Vatican was embroiled in fresh controversy today as one of its top cardinals described paedophilia as a psychological "illness" rather than a "criminal condition".
Wilfrid Fox Napier, the Catholic Archbishop of Durban, who helped appoint newly-elected Pope Francis, said in a radio interview here that people who were abused during childhood and became paedophiles were not criminally responsible for their actions in the same way as somebody "who chooses to do something like that".
"From my experience paedophilia is actually an illness. It is not a criminal condition, it is an illness," he told BBC`s `Radio 5 Live`.
The Catholic Church has recently been dogged by a number of scandals over clerical sex abuse.
Cardinal Napier was among the 115 cardinals in the Vatican conclave that elected Pope Francis earlier this week.
"What do you do with disorders? You have got to try and put them right. If I as a normal being choose to break the law knowing that I am breaking the law, then I think I need to be punished," the Cardinal said.
The South African cardinal spoke of two priests he knew who were abused as children and went on to become paedophiles.
"Don`t tell me that those people are criminally responsible like somebody who chooses to do something like that. I don`t think you can really take the position and say that person deserves to be punished when he was himself damaged," he argued.
His comments triggered immediate criticism and Barbara Dorries, who as a child was abused by a priest and now works for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests in Chicago.
"If it is a disease that`s fine, but it`s also a crime and crimes are punished, criminals are held accountable for what they did and what they do. The bishops and the cardinals have gone to great lengths to cover these crimes to enable the predators to move on, to not be arrested, to keep the secrets within the church," said Barbara.
Newly-elected Pope Francis had also faced outrage from victims of clerical abuse after it emerged that one of the first people he met after being elected was a US cardinal who resigned in disgrace amid allegations of covering up child abuse.
During an unscheduled visit to a basilica in Rome hours after becoming Pope, he briefly greeted Cardinal Bernard Law.
Cardinal Law had resigned as Archbishop of Boston 10 years ago, after issuing a statement begging forgiveness, and left America after being accused in scores of law suits of failing to protect children.
Tackling claims of inappropriate behaviour and sexual abuse among the clergy is seen as one of the toughest tasks faced by the new head of the Catholic Church and the latest remarks are likely to heighten the controversy even further.