* Theologians: Letter stunning, Benedict seeks to shift blame
* Benedict lives in seclusion but still writes occasionally
* Conservatives still see Benedict, not Francis, as pope
VATICAN CITY - Former Pope Benedict has blamed the Catholic Church's sexual abuse scandal on the effects of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, homosexual cliques in seminaries and what he called a general collapse in morality.
Critics accused Benedict, who before becoming pope in 2005 was for 23 years in charge of the Vatican doctrinal office that has been widely criticized for its handling of abuse cases, of trying to shift blame away from the church.
But in a rare essay, he said the Church's legal system had at times been overly protective of accused clerics, citing what he called judicial guarantees that were "extended to such an extent that convictions were hardly possible".
The 91-year-old, who in 2013 became the first pope in six centuries to resign, argued that the sexual revolution had led some to believe paedophilia and pornography were acceptable. He also said that an openly gay culture in some Catholic seminaries meant they had failed to train priests properly.
"It could be said that in the 20 years from 1960 to 1980, the previously normative standards regarding sexuality collapsed entirely, and a new normalcy arose that has by now been the subject of laborious attempts at disruption," Benedict wrote.
Benedict was head of the Vatican's doctrinal office when the first wave of abuse cases were exposed in Boston in 2002. Later, as pope, he took action against some paedophiles that had been blocked during the reign of his predecessor, John Paul.
Abuse scandals in Ireland, Chile, Australia, France, the United States, Poland, Germany and elsewhere have forced the Church to pay out billions of dollars in damages to victims and close parishes. Many cases date back decades before the 1960s.
Revelations that predatory priests were often moved from parish to parish rather than expelled or criminally prosecuted as bishops covered up the abuse have shaken the church globally and undermined its authority.
Benedict offered his evaluations in a long essay in Klerusblatt, a monthly Church magazine in Bavaria, his native region of Germany. A Vatican official confirmed the authenticity of the essay.
Benedict said the impetus for the essay, titled "The Church and the Scandal of Sexual Abuse", was a summit of senior bishops that Francis, his successor as pope, held in February to discuss the crisis.
"Among the freedoms that the Revolution of 1968 sought to fight for was this all-out sexual freedom, one which no longer conceded any norms," Benedict wrote, according to an English translation published by several Catholic websites.
He said the spread of explicit sex education for young schoolchildren and nudity in advertising had contributed to a loosening of moral bearings and an "absence of God".
Some theologians took to Twitter to criticize Benedict, who vowed to remain "hidden from the world" when he resigned in 2013 but is still seen as a defender of the true faith by conservatives who have not accepted Francis.
"This is an embarrassing letter," said Brian Flanagan, professor of theology at Marymount University in Virginia.
"The idea that ecclesial abuse of children was a result of the 1960s, a supposed collapse of moral theology, and 'conciliarity' (the Church after the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council) is an embarrassingly wrong explanation for the systemic abuse of children and its cover-up."
Julie Rubio, a professor at Santa Clara University's school of theology, called Benedict's reasoning "deeply flawed".
"The willingness to blame a permissive culture and progressive theology for a problem that is internal and structural is stunning," Rubio said.
Conservatives came to Benedict's defense.
"It is the voice of a father. Benedict XVI has written to us about the question we are asking," columnist Chad Pecknold wrote in the Catholic Herald.
Benedict wrote that after the Second Vatican Council there was a "far reaching breakdown" of the traditional methods of priestly formation that coincided with a dissolution of the Christian concept of morality.
"In various seminaries homosexual cliques were established, which acted more or less openly and significantly changed the climate in the seminaries," he wrote, adding that the situation has now improved.