Sydney - An Australian Catholic Church body dealing with the legacy of child sex abuse by clergy said on Tuesday it believed the number of paedophile priests was historically twice the pope's reported estimate.
In an report published on Sunday, Pope Francis condemned child sex abuse as a "leprosy" in the church and cited his aides as saying that "the level of paedophilia in the church is at two percent".
"That two percent includes priests and even bishops and cardinals," the pope was quoted as telling Italy's La Repubblica daily, in comments later questioned by a Vatican spokesperson.
Francis Sullivan, the chief executive of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council, said he believed the figure was historically higher in Australia, where clergy were deeply involved in schools and orphanages.
The council, on behalf of the church, is compiling a database of abuse by clergy dating back to the 1940s and its preliminary work suggests the number of perpetrators of child sex abuse was about four percent in Australia, he said.
"What we've got to date are figures that are far higher than the pope is reported to have said," Sullivan told AFP
"You've got a figure of around four percent of clergy."
"And that figure means people who have been a priest in that period -- it doesn't mean that it's four percent of today's clergy are perpetrators of child sex abuse."
'Manipulating ingenuous readers'
The council is helping the Catholic Church respond to Australia's ongoing Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and hopes to have collated national data by year end.
A Vatican spokesperson said the pontiff's quotes in the newspaper on the existence of paedophile cardinals 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".
In a long-awaited first meeting with victims, Pope Francis this month reached out to the tens of thousands of people abused by priests globally, telling them he was sorry for the "grave crimes committed against you" and the complicity of the Church in covering them up.
Sullivan welcomed the pope's "zero-tolerance" towards the problem, saying his attitude was far less self-protecting or influenced by an institutional agenda.
"In my mind he is sending much more refreshing signals that he would be prepared, and is prepared, to seriously get to the heart of the problem and how the church has handled it," he said.