Australia's leading Catholic cleric George Pell, a top Vatican official, has come under fire after drawing an analogy between the church's response to child abuse and a trucking company.
Cardinal Pell, a former archbishop of both Melbourne and Sydney before taking up a high-powered job this year as head of a new Vatican finance ministry after being hand-picked by Pope Francis, made the comments yesterday.
He acknowledged to a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Melbourne that the church had a moral obligation to the victims of paedophile priests.
But he suggested that when it came to its legal responsibility, the actions of its priests were not necessarily the fault of the church, citing the hypothetical example of a woman being molested by a truck driver.
"If the truck driver picks up some lady and then molests her, I don't think it's appropriate, because it is contrary to the policy, for the ownership, the leadership of that company to be held responsible," he said via video link from Rome.
"Similarly with the church and the head of any other organisation.
"If every precaution has been taken, no warning has been given, it is, I think, not appropriate for legal culpability to be foisted on the authority figure."
The comments outraged support groups, who said Cardinal Pell was displaying a lack of compassion for victims of abuse.
"His comments were outrageous," Adults Surviving Child Abuse president Cathy Kezelman said, adding that he "continues to duck and weave" in trying to deny liability.
"To have their (victims') experiences denied yet again drives a knife into the wound and twists it," she said.
Nicky Davis, from the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, told ABC radio in Australia it showed Cardinal Pell was out of touch.
"He shows that he really has absolutely no conception of what is appropriate or inappropriate behaviour and what are appropriate or inappropriate things to say to survivors," she said.
"It was a highly offensive comparison and showed that, at the end of the day, all he was concerned with was protecting himself and making excuses for behaviour that is inexcusable."
Earlier this year, in his last sermon before leaving Australia for the Holy See, Cardinal Pell acknowledged priests, religious leaders and others linked to the church had abused those they were supposed to protect, and he apologised.
The Royal Commission is under way in Australia after a decade of growing pressure to investigate widespread allegations of paedophilia.
Its hearings have covered thousands of harrowing allegations of child abuse involving places of worship, orphanages, community groups and schools.
Cardinal Pell is now one of the most important figures in the Catholic Church, charged with helping overhaul the Vatican's much-criticised central administration following a wave of scandals.