One in 50 clerics is a pedophile, Pope Francis said in an interview published Sunday, in which he also hinted that the mandate of priestly celibacy may one day be lifted.
Francis condemned child sex abuse as a "leprosy" in the church and cited his aides as saying that "the level of pedophilia in the church is at 2 percent." That figure includes priests "and even bishops and cardinals," Italy's La Repubblica daily quoted Francis as saying.
The figure represents about 8,000 priests out of more than 400,000 worldwide, according to the latest statistics from the Vatican.
Francis promised "solutions" to the issue of priestly celibacy, the Italian publication reported, raising the possibility that the Catholic Church may eventually lift a ban on marriage for priests.
Asked by the paper whether priests might one day be permitted to marry, Francis noted that celibacy was instituted "900 years after our lord's death" and that clerics may marry in Eastern rite churches under Vatican leadership.
"There definitely is a problem, but it is not a major one. This needs time, but there are solutions, and I will find them," Francis said, without giving further details.
But Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the quotations in the newspaper on the existence of pedophile cardinals and the possible reform of priestly celibacy did not correspond to what the pope actually said.
"This is not at all an interview in the normal sense of the word," he said, accusing the newspaper of "manipulating ingenuous readers."
Off-the-cuff statements made by the pope often lend themselves to ambiguity, according to the BBC. Although wanting to show a more compassionate attitude than his predecessors regarding church teaching, this can sometimes cause consternation among his advisers, the BBC reported.
The interview was the third in a series with the 90-year-old founder of La Repubblica, Eugenio Scalfari, a famous journalist and known atheist.
Al Jazeera and wire services. Amel Ahmed contributed to this report.