VATICAN CITY -- The Vatican prosecutor of clerical sex abuse warned perpetrators Saturday that they would suffer damnation in hell that would be worse than the death penalty.
The Rev. Charles Scicluna, a Maltese priest who is a top official at the Vatican's morality office, led a special "make amends" prayer service in St. Peter's Basilica.
Seminarians and other pontifical university students in Rome wanted to gather for prayers for the victims of clergy abuse and for the healing of the church's wounds from the scandal over its concealment of abuse.
Quoting from a long passage from Gregory the Great, an early pope and monk who made rules for the clergy, Scicluna said in the case of a pedophile priest "it would be really better that his evil deeds cause him death in his lifetime" under secular laws than suffer "more terrible damnation" in hell.
Scicluna has been leading the Vatican's drive to rid the church of pedophile priests. Many victims' groups say the Vatican must admit responsibility for a decades-old culture of secrecy and systematic cover-ups.
The Vatican official likened children to a "holy icon," and decried what the world becomes when children are "abused, destroyed."
"Don't make children the object of your impure covetousness," Scicluna said to the priests.
Participants at the ceremony asked for prayers "for the victims of abuses perpetrated by men and women of the Church, so that they can heal their wounds and experience true peace," the Italian news agency ANSA reported.
Prayers were also offered for clerics and other religious who committed abuses so that "they can honestly face up to the consequences of their guilt and embrace the needs of justice," ANSA said.
Scicluna drew on a passage in St. Mark's Gospel saying those who harm children would be better off tying a millstone to their neck and throwing themselves into the sea.
Earlier in the week, the Catholic news agency Zenit reported that several seminary students, including ones from Britain and the United States, decided to have the prayer service in response to Pope Benedict XVI's harsh letter to Irish bishops in March.
In that letter, Benedict chastised bishops in the predominantly Catholic nation for making grave errors of judgment about the abuse of thousands of Irish boys and girls. But he didn't blame Vatican policies that kept the abuse secret for making the situation worse and he issued no punishment for the Irish bishops.
Any scandal in the Italian church is particularly delicate for the Vatican.
On Friday, the head of the Italian bishops conference, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco told his churchmen that it was "possible" that sex abuse by clergy might have also been covered up in Italy, and said bishops should follow the Vatican's guidelines in dealing with abuse allegations.