Pope Benedict says the Catholic Church must examine failures that have allowed for "an unimaginable dimension" of sexual abuse by priests.
The pope said Monday that church authorities also must renew efforts to help victims and screen potential pedophiles from the priesthood.
Speaking to cardinals and bishops gathered in Rome to hear the pontiff's traditional Christmas message, the pope defended most priests for their good works but said the church had to ask itself what was wrong in its message that allowed such abuse to occur.
Catholics in Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium have demanded church accountability for the abuses, which began coming to light eight years ago in the United States and later became apparent in Europe.
Victims have accused the church hierarchy of failing for decades to act swiftly to punish errant priests.