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 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.

"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," he said.

The letter, sent to Piergiorgio Odifreddi, an atheist mathematician, and reprinted by Italian newspaper La Repubblica, was the first published statement from Benedict since he said on retirement that he would live out his years "hidden from the world".


The letter 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 documents was a coincidence, rather than a concerted attempt by the two men 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 underlines the peculiarity of a situation in which, for the first time in centuries, two Popes live virtually under the same roof.