By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor
PARIS (Reuters) - A Roman Catholic order of priests sacked its leader in the Netherlands and disciplined another priest Monday after the two publicly defended pedophile sex, an issue haunting the worldwide Church in recent years.
The scandal erupted over the weekend when RTL radio reported the priest, named only as Rev. Van B, had been a board member of a lobbying group advocating sex between adults and children. He told RTL that few children suffered from such relationships.
Asked about the case, Rev. Herman Spronck, leader of the Dutch Salesians, said he agreed pedophile sex could be accepted.
"Herman Spronck is no longer the delegate from the Salesian delegation in the Netherlands," his superior Rev. Jos Claes, leader of the Salesians in Belgium and the Netherlands, told RTL. "We fully distance ourselves from the words we find in your interview with Herman Spronck."
Rev. Van B "can longer perform any pastoral duties as of today," he added.
The Dutch Salesians used to run boarding schools where many of the 2,000 complaints of clerical sexual abuse of boys emerged when the scandal broke there last year. It has admitted to paying hush money to some victims.
An independent commission investigating abuse cases dating back to 1945 has found that the Netherlands ranks worst behind only Ireland in a scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church in Europe and the United States.
The abuse scandal has badly damaged the reputation of the Catholic Church. Pope Benedict has apologised for the scandals and last week issued tougher new guidelines for churches around the world to make fighting clerical sex abuse a top priority.
While many priests have been exposed as molesters, very few have defended sex with minors. The radio said Van B. had twice been arrested for exposing himself to children.
In his interview with RTL, Van B said: "Society finds these kinds of relationships damaging. I don't agree. Only in a few cases do the children suffer from them."
The radio, which said Spronck knew of Van B's role in the pedophile group but did nothing about it, quoted him as saying he "would not reject in principle (the idea of) sex with minors." Spronck later denied he had said that.
Claes said in a statement the Salesians had set up an inquiry into Van B's membership in the group. "Membership in such an association, and its views, are not consistent with our Salesian identity and educational project," he said.
Wim Deetman, head of the independent commission investigating the scandals, has said most cases happened decades ago and could no longer be prosecuted. The commission had a list of about 1,000 suspected abusers but only six had confessed their guilt.
(Additional reporting by Gilbert Kreijger in Amsterdam; Editing by Jon Hemming)