MONTEVIDEO, April 23 (AFP) - The pedophile priests scandal shredding the Catholic Church's reputation worldwide has been especially savage in Latin America, where half the religion's faithful live.
Ecclesiastical authorities from the region have either been begging for forgiveness as they tried to reassure their nervous flock -- or echoing the Holy See's line that the Church was being persecuted by mysterious forces.
Colombian Cardinal Dario Castrillon, for instance, Thursday said he would "never" regret his support for a French bishop who did not denounce a pederast priest, and claimed Freemasonry was behind a smear campaign.
"I'm not afraid to say that in some cases there are, within the Masons, enemies united against the Church," said the cardinal, who was appointed by the late pope John Paul II.
"It is a shame there are such idiots working up this type of persecution," he added, in comments from Rome to Radio RCN in Bogota.
With the polemic swirling around him for voicing his views, Castrillon was replaced Thursday in a mass that he was to have led on the weekend in Washington celebrating the fifth year of the reign of Pope Benedict XVI.
But a Peruvian cardinal who is also Lima's archbishop, Juan Luis Cipriani, also stepped up to defend the Church's claim to victimhood in the scandal.
"This is the work of the devil, even if that makes journalists laugh," said Cipriani, who is also a high-ranking Opus Dei figure in Latin America.
Last month, the Latin American Bishops' Council accused the media of peddling in "false" and "defamatory" accounts about Pope Benedict's actions in the past when confronted with instances of child abuse by the clergy.
"The pope has always displayed great courage," the body said in a statement reproduced by the Vatican's mouthpiece newspaper L'Osservatore Romano.
Brazil, the largest country in Latin America and by extension the country with the biggest Catholic population in the world, has been shocked by the pedophile scandal in recent weeks.
A hidden-camera video broadcast on television -- and now being sold illicitly on the streets -- shows one 84-year-old priest in northeastern Brazil, Luiz Marques Barbosa, receiving oral sex from a former choir boy in front of an altar.
Two other priests were implicated in the video, in which three former choir boys said they were sexually abused as minors by them. The video has triggered a parliamentary inquiry and Barbosa's arrest.
The local bishop in charge of the three priests, Valerio Breda, wrote to parishoners pleading for "forgiveness in the name of the Church."
Other Church officials in Latin America have done likewise.
"There is no place for a priest who abuses children. There is no excuse that can justify this crime," the head of Chile's bishops' conference, Alejandro Goic, told a news conference.
"We ask forgiveness, and we appeal for these acts to be communicated to us," he said, adding that the Church was committed to ensuring "these grave crimes are never repeated."
So far, 20 known cases of pedophile priests have been revealed in Chile, five of whom have been convicted.
The Mexican Bishops Conference a week early also asked for pardon for the crimes, including those perpetrated by the late founder of the Legion of Christ order.
The bishops pledged to allow civilian authorities to intervene "to carry out the law" in current and past pedophile cases.
Although the scandal has galvanized and revolted many in recent months, pedophilia is not new in the Church's activities in Latin America.
In 2002, five Argentine priests were convicted to eight to 24 years in prison for sexual abuse, while a bishop had to step down after being implicated in sexual impropriety.
A more recent case, in December 2009, saw an Argentine former archbishop, Edgardo Storni, given an eight-year prison term for abusing a seminarist in 1992.
Last year, a priest, Julio César Grassi, was also convicted and sentenced to 15 years for sexual abuse and corruption of a minor in a foundation for vulnerable children.
Costa Rica was shaken by a priest, Enrique Delgado, famous for presenting a popular religious television program, who was sent behind bars in 2005 for 12 years for abusing three minors.
Also in 2005, orphans accused an Italian priest, Marcos Dessi, of sexually abusing them while he ran a Nicaraguan orphanage, earning him a 12-year prison sentence in Italy.
In Paraguay, ex-members of the parish blasted a local bishop, Rogelio Livieres, for covering up a priest's alleged abuse of an adolescent.
In Venezuela, where no predatory behaviour has come to light, Caracas Bishop Luis Armando Tineo told AFP that while he rejected such crimes and found them unjustifiable, "we can't fall into the impression that there's an epidemic." (By Ana Ines Cibils/ AFP)