In a very strange turn of events, the former pope -- Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI -- has broken his public silence to defend against allegations that he covered up sex-abuse.
The comments - which a victims' group rejected - were made in an 11-page letter to Italian author and mathematician Piergiorgio Odifreddi, who had written a book about the problems facing the Roman Catholic Church before the pope resigned in February.
"As far as you mentioning the moral abuse of minors by priests, I can only, as you know, acknowledge it with profound consternation. But I never tried to cover up these things," said Benedict, who now has the title Emeritus Pope.
Excerpts of the letter were published in the Rome newspaper La Repubblica on Tuesday with the former pope's permission.
It was believed to be the first time Benedict has responded to the sexual abuse accusations in the first person, although the Vatican has always said he did much to put an end to sexual abuse of minors by priests and never tried to cover it up.
Even stranger than the public nature of retired pontiff's statement is the fact that it appears to echo a letter from Pope Francis to the publisher of La Repubblica -- or does Pope Francis's statement echo Pope Benedict's?
The letters indicate that the two men in white – who live across the Vatican gardens from one another – are pursuing an active campaign to engage non-believers. It's a melding of papacies past and present that has no precedent and signals that the popes – while very different in style, personality and priorities – are of the same mind on many issues and might even be collaborating on them.
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Benedict became the first pope in 600 years to resign when he retired Feb. 28, setting the stage for the election of Francis two weeks later. Benedict said at the time that he would spend his final years "hidden from the world," living in a converted monastery tucked behind St. Peter's Basilica, reading and praying.
Benedict's decision to cloister himself was in part due to his own shy, bookish nature, but also to make clear that he was no longer pope and that his successor was in charge.
Fear of schism in the church had prevented popes for centuries from stepping down, and Benedict's resignation immediately raised some not-insignificant questions: How would the Catholic Church deal with the novel situation of having one reigning and one retired pope living side-by-side, each of them called "pope," each of them wearing papal white and even sharing the same aide in Monsignor Georg Gaenswein?
Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi denied that the two living popes were acting in concert and claimed the fact that they both wrote letters on the same subject matter to two prominent atheists in as many weeks was entirely coincidental.