Image: Rowan Williams
Matt Dunham  /  AP file
Britain's Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams comments on the church abuse scandal to the BBC: "I was speaking to an Irish friend recently who was saying that it's quite difficult in some parts of Ireland to go down the street wearing a clerical collar now."
NBC News and news services
updated 4/3/2010 7:55:51 PM ET 2010-04-03T23:55:51

The Archbishop of Canterbury feels "deep sorrow and regret for difficulties" caused by his statement that the Catholic Church in Ireland has lost "all credibility" because of its mishandling of abuse by priests, his office said Saturday.

Rowan Williams' comments came during an interview with the BBC about the crisis engulfing the Irish Catholic Church in which he said the sex abuse allegations had been a "colossal trauma" for Ireland in particular.

"I was speaking to an Irish friend recently who was saying that it's quite difficult in some parts of Ireland to go down the street wearing a clerical collar now," Williams told the BBC. "And an institution so deeply bound into the life of a society, suddenly becoming, suddenly losing all credibility — that's not just a problem for the church, it is a problem for everybody in Ireland, I think."

The interview with Williams, recorded March 26, is to be aired Monday on the BBC's "Start the Week" program. His remarks were part of a general discussion of religion to mark Easter.

It was the first time Williams, the spiritual leader of the Church of England, had spoken publicly on the matter. The remarks come ahead of a planned visit to England and Scotland by Pope Benedict XVI later this year.

Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said he had "rarely felt personally so discouraged" as when he heard Williams' remarks.

"I have been more than forthright in addressing the failures of the Catholic Church in Ireland. I still shudder when I think of the harm that was caused to abused children. I recognize that their church failed them," a statement, posted on the archdiocese's Web site, said. "Those working for renewal in the Catholic Church in Ireland did not need this comment on this Easter weekend and do not deserve it."

After his comments were made public, Williams telephoned Martin to insist he meant no offense to the Catholic Church in Ireland.

"The Archbishop had no intention of criticizing or attacking the Catholic Church as a whole," Williams' spokesperson said. "The church in Ireland continues to work tirelessly to deal with the scandal of abuse."

Strained relations
Relations between the two churches were strained last year after the Vatican invited conservative Anglicans to join the Catholic Church. How many will take up the offer is still unknown.

"I don't think it's going to be a big deal for the Church of England, I must say," Williams said. "I think there'll be a few people who will take advantage of it — and they'll take advantage of it because they believe they ought to be in communion with the bishop of Rome. And I can only say fine, God bless them."

Williams said he would meet with the pope at Lambeth Palace, that he would be welcomed as "as a valued partner, and that's about it."

In the interview, Williams said Christian institutions, faced with the choice of self-protection or revealing potentially damaging secrets, have decided to keep quiet to preserve their credibility.

"We've learned that that is damaging, it's wrong, it's dishonest and it requires that very hard recognition ... which ought to be natural for the Christian church based as it is on repentance and honesty," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Harsh words erupt over church crisis

  1. Closed captioning of: Harsh words erupt over church crisis

    >>> extraordinary teamwork on the high seas . it is already easter sunday in rome and pope benedict has ushered in the holiest day on the christian calendar with the vigit at st. peter's. the pope made no mention of the sex abuse scandal swirling around the church but the vatican newspaper denounced a vile defamation operation against the pope. also tonight, other church leaders have plenty to say about the crisis. and its impact. nbc 's anne thompson is in rome tonight for us with the latest. good evening to you, anne.

    >> reporter: good evening, peter. tonight in the absence of any statement by pope benedict there is an international war of words on. between catholic church officials and leaders of other religions over the clergy sex abuse scandal. * on holy saturday, the catholic church is under siege. today the leader of the anglican church , the archbishop of canterbury criticized the way the catholic church has dealt with the crisis in ireland.

    >> an institution so deeply bound into the life of the society, suddenly becoming, suddenly losing all credibility. and that's not just a problem for the church . it is a problem for everybody in ireland.

    >> reporter: that brought a swipt response from dublin's catholic archbishop working to heal the pain of widespread abuse in church institutions.

    >> it's very damaging to those who are trying to restore credibility to be simply, you know, wiped off with a general comment like that.

    >> reporter: tonight, the archbishop of canterbury apologized saying in a statement he did not mean to criticize or attack the catholic church . meanwhile in vatican city , officials spent the day trying to repair the damage done friday night by the pope's preacher. his comparison of the attacks on the pope to the persecution of jews provoked outrage in jerusalem.

    >> there are other cases of raceanism the world , but i don't think this is one of them.

    >> reporter: and new york .

    >> i thought it just shows the depth of ignorance in the church or church leaders of what anti-semitism is about because there is no comparison.

    >> reporter: the vatican spokesperson said the preacher's comparison is not the thinking of the church . in the u.s., victims' attorneys continue to release documents they claim show church officials knew about the abuse problem but dragged their feet. * tonight, in munich, cardinal reinhart marks prayed for a church renewed by easter. a new start that is possible, says father robert gall who teaches ethics at the church of the holy cross in rome .

    >> it's like having to have surgery to remove a tumor. the scandal is an opportunity to cure the disease so that the priesthood can be built up in the future.

    >> reporter: now the attention turns to the pope's address after easter sunday mass. it is his speech to the city and the world . in the past, he has used it to talk about such issues as the war in iraq . the question is will he use it to talk about the scandal in his church ? peter?

    >> anne thompson in rome for us tonight. yaing, thank you.

    >>> in a village south of

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