Wilfrid Fox Napier
South African Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier apologized for calling pedophilia an "illness" that shouldn't be punished as a crime. Reuters

South Africa’s Archbishop of Durban, Wilfrid Fox Napier, apologized on Monday for offending victims of child abuse after he described pedophilia as a “mental illness” and not a crime during a recent BBC interview.

"I apologize sincerely and unreservedly to all who were offended by the botched interview, and especially to those who have been abused and need every help and support that the Church can give,” Napier said in a statement released on Monday. "Child sexual abuse is a heinous crime among other things because of the damage it does to the child. In that concern I include the abused who has become an abuser."

Napier, who was one of the 115 Catholic Cardinals to help elect Pope Francis, acknowledged that the “wheels came off” during the interview, but contended that his remarks had been taken out of context. He added that he was “afforded no time to explain that the priority of pastoral concern must always be for the victim.”

In the live interview with BBC Radio 5 on Saturday, Napier described pedophilia as a “disorder” requiring treatment and said that pedophiles should not be looked upon as criminals.

"From my experience, pedophilia is actually an illness. It's not a criminal condition, it's an illness," Napier said.

He cited two Catholic priests he knew of who were sexually abused as children and went on to become pedophiles themselves.

"Now don't tell me that those people are criminally responsible like somebody who chooses to do something like that,” Napier said. “I don't think you can really take the position and say that person deserves to be punished. He was himself damaged."

"What do you do with disorders? You've got to try and put them right," he added. "If I -- as a normal being -- choose to break the law, knowing that I'm breaking the law, then I think I need to be punished."

Napier’s remarks provoked a wave of anger among victim’s rights groups and those critical of the Catholic Church’s response to its ongoing child sex abuse scandals.

“The wheels came off indeed!” Dakar-based Reuters correspondent Bate Felix wrote in a tweet.

South African political commentator Justica Malala also threw his opinion into the mix, calling the Archbishop the “loser of the week” on his television show, according to Reuters.

“Like all good politicians Cardinal Napier was quoted out of context,” Twitter user @ZakesMda wrote.