The Vatican says the Pope had been exercising due caution
The Vatican has defended the Pope against allegations that he was responsible for delaying Church action against a US paedophile priest.
A spokesman said the claims, which stem from a letter signed by Benedict XVI when he was a senior Vatican official, had been taken out of context.
AP published a letter, signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 1985, resisting Stephen Kiesle's defrocking.
The Vatican says he was exercising due caution before sacking the priest.
A leading British Catholic commentator said the issue had exposed an ongoing power struggle between senior Vatican cardinals that started during the papacy of Pope Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II.
Series of scandals
In the letter, Cardinal Ratzinger - who was at the time the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which has responsibility for tackling abuse by clerics - said the "good of the universal Church" needed to be considered in any defrocking, AP reported.
By David Willey,
BBC News, Rome
The Vatican claims the letter must be considered in its true context of a lengthy exchange of correspondence between California and Rome about defrocking an American priest who was a known child molester.
The Pope's critics claim that he stalled and left unanswered for years letters concerning alleged cases of sexual abuse by priests.
American bishops are coming under increasing pressure from their flocks to explain why the Church in Rome did not take more robust action or took no action at all.
So they are releasing confidential documents which put the future Pope's lack of action in a bad light.
The Vatican insists that the Pope was only exercising due caution before sacking a priest for sexual misconduct.
A Vatican spokesman said the letter was part of a long correspondence and should not be taken out of context.
"The press office doesn't believe it is necessary to respond to every single document taken out of context regarding particular legal situations," said the spokesman, Fr Federico Lombardi.
He acknowledged that the Church had lost public trust and said Church law could no longer be placed above civil laws if that trust were to be recovered.
This is an abrupt change of tone by the Vatican, says BBC religious affairs correspondent Robert Pigott.
Officials had previously accused critics of trying to smear the Pope personally and only last weekend said he should ignore petty gossip directed at him, our correspondent adds.
The Catholic Church has been hit by a series of child abuse scandals in recent years, including in Ireland, the US, Germany and Norway, and has faced criticism for failing to deal adequately with the problem.
On Friday, the Vatican urged Catholic dioceses around the world to co-operate with police investigating sex abuse allegations against priests.
The Vatican says the Pope is willing to meet more victims of clerical abuse, while the Church is set to publish an internet guide as to how bishops deal with accusations of sexual abuse.
AP said Fr Kiesle was sentenced to three years of probation in 1978 for lewd conduct with two young boys in San Francisco.
ALLEGATIONS FACING POPE
In 1980 as archbishop of Munich and Freising, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger unwittingly approved housing for a priest accused of child abuse; a former deputy later said he made the decision
Cardinal Ratzinger failed to act over complaints during the 1990s about US priest Lawrence Murphy, who is thought to have abused some 200 deaf boys in Wisconsin
Cardinal Ratzinger allowed a case against Arizona priest Michael Teta to languish at the Vatican for more than a decade despite repeated pleas for his removal
Cardinal Ratzinger resisted the defrocking of California priest Stephen Kiesle, a convicted offender, saying "good of the universal Church" needed to be considered
The Pope's supporters say he has been unfairly blamed for cases handled by junior staff, and that he has been proactive in addressing child abuse.
It said the Oakland diocese had recommended Fr Kiesle's removal in 1981 but that that did not happen until 1987.
A Vatican attorney said Kiesle was not accused of any misdemeanour during the period.
Cardinal Ratzinger took over the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1981.
AP says the 1985 correspondence, written in Latin, shows the cardinal saying that Kiesle's removal would need careful review.
Cardinal Ratzinger urged "as much paternal care as possible" for Kiesle.
Kiesle was sentenced to six years in prison in 2004 after admitting molesting a young girl in 1995.
Kiesle is now 63 and is on the registered sex offenders list in California.
While the scandal has prompted calls for the Pope's resignation, a columnist for Britain's leading Catholic newspaper said Cardinal Ratzinger had actually wanted to crack down hard on paedophile priests in the 1980s.
Clifford Longley, a columnist for The Tablet, said the cardinal was thwarted by other senior Vatican figures who wanted to cover up the sex-abuse crisis, until he was given overall control of the issue in 2001.
"Ratzinger was thwarted on several occasions... by people surrounding the Pope, and indeed possibly by John Paul II himself, who did not appear to be taking the situation anything like as seriously as Ratzinger," said Mr Longley.
Since Benedict XVI was elected as Pope in 2005, things had changed radically, added Mr Longley, but the power-struggle was ongoing.
The Vatican has ruled out any possibility of a papal resignation over the scandal.