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Retired pope defends record on abuse crisis

VATICAN CITY — Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI has emerged from his self-imposed silence inside the Vatican walls to publish a lengthy letter to one of Italy’s most well-known atheists. In it, he defends his record on handling sexually abusive priests and discusses everything from evolution to theology to the figure of Jesus Christ.

Excerpts of the letter to atheist mathematician Piergiorgio Odifreddi were published Tuesday by La Repubblica, the same newspaper that two weeks ago published a similar letter from Pope Francis to Odifreddi.

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The Vatican spokesman, the Reverend Federico Lombardi, said it was pure coincidence.

In Benedict’s letter, he responded to Odifreddi’s 2011 book ‘‘Dear Pope, I’m Writing You,’’ which in turn was the Italian’s response to Benedict’s classic ‘‘Introduction to Christianity.’’ Odifreddi posed a series of polemical arguments about the Catholic faith, including the church’s sex abuse scandal.

The former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger headed the Vatican office responsible for abuse cases and was pope when scandal erupted in 2010.

In his letter, Benedict rejected personal involvement.

‘‘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 wrote, according to Repubblica.

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