Washington, July 14 - Angry sex abuse victims and Democrats are demandingthat U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum apologize for three-year-old "insensitive" and"self-serving" remarks that blamed Boston's liberal cultural, political andacademic institutions for causing the Catholic Church's clergy sex abusescandal.

The firestorm ignited on the same day, Wednesday (July 13), that a newpoll showed that Santorum, R-Pa., continues to trail state Treasurer RobertP. Casey Jr. by 11 percentage points in the campaign for the 2006 U.S.Senate election.

The issue could further hurt Santorum's standing in a campaign where heand Casey, both anti-abortion Catholics, will be courting the Catholic vote.Experts suggested it may also influence moderate voters, who remain uneasywith Santorum.

"Priests, like all of us, are affected by culture," Santorum wrote in amostly overlooked July 12, 2002, column for the Web site Catholic Online."When the culture is sick, every element in it becomes infected. While it isno excuse for this scandal, it is no surprise that Boston, a seat ofacademic, political and cultural liberalism in America, lies at the centerof the storm."

Santorum's comments and his refusal to back away from them even afterThe Boston Globe reported them this week left abuse victims, analysts andDemocrats, particularly those from Massachusetts, up in arms.

"We think his initial comments were off base and hurtful and would hopethat he would have grown in his understanding of the crisis over the lastthree years," said David Clohessy, national director of the SurvivorsNetwork of those Abused by Priests.

"It's disturbing that he had a chance to offer a more nuanced andbalanced view of the crisis, but chose not to," said Clohessy, whose6,000-member group includes several hundred in Santorum's home state.

Santorum's comments also prompted a rare personal attack on the Senatefloor Wednesday, where Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass, criticized Santorum's"self-righteousness" and demanded he apologize to abuse victims for blaming"the people of Boston for the depraved behavior of sick individuals whostole the innocence of children in the most horrible way imaginable."

Kennedy called Santorum's comments, originally reported by thePhiladelphia Daily News and largely overlooked until The Globe reports,"irresponsible, insensitive and inexcusable."

"Abuse against children is not a liberal or conservative issue," saidKennedy. "It's a horrific and unspeakable tragedy. Sadly, it happens inevery state of this great nation -- red states and blue states, in the Northand in the South, in big cities and small. The victims of child sexual abusehave suffered enough already, and Sen. Santorum should stop making a bad andvery tragic situation worse."

Santorum did not address the substance of the criticism and on Thursdayfired back at Kennedy and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., accusing them ofdredging up his 3-year-old comments for political purposes because thePennsylvania Senate election is considered the next year's premier contest.

"It's sort of sad that they would use religion and this tragic time forpurely partisan, blatantly political purposes," Santorum said. "I guessthere is no depth in which they will stoop, including impugning and diggingup very, very difficult times and difficult feelings and emotions frompeople who were harmed by that scandal."

At the time he wrote the column, Santorum said he was working hard withpeople within the church "to resolve that scandal, to bring the people whowere involved to justice, to begin changes within the church so this wouldnot happen again -- none of which I'm aware that either Sen. Kennedy or Sen.Kerry did."

Santorum then took Kennedy to task for not strictly adhering to "properorthodox formation within the teachings of the Vatican."

"I don't think Sen. Kennedy would follow that very closely," he said,adding, "I don't think Ted Kennedy lecturing me on the teachings of thechurch and how the church should handle these problems is something I'mgoing to take particularly seriously."

Santorum spokesman Robert Traynham said the senator's comments in thecolumn were in the context of liberal-leaning institutions such as HarvardUniversity or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology promoting "a broaderculture that unfortunately covered up the sex abuse scandal."

GOP leaders downplayed the impact of the controversy, 16 months beforethe election, but worry it will feed into Democrats' strategy to help Casey,who leads 50 percent to 39 percent in a Quinnipiac Poll.

Santorum's initial comments came when the focus on the church scandalwas in Boston, according to Traynham. But several experts disputed that andsaid the issue had become much more widespread by that time.

Santorum's July 12, 2002 comments were months after reports that abusewas far more widespread than those in Boston.

The New York Times, forexample, ran a front page story March 3 of that year on the issue that didnot involve Boston-area clergy.

"The offensive thing here is this is an incredibly simplistic, biasedview of what is a complex and widespread problem," said Jim Post, a BostonUniversity professor and president of Voice of the Faithful, a 35,000-memberCatholic lay organization.

More than 10,000 cases of clergy sex abuse have been documented in theUnited States and the Vatican has acknowledged it's a worldwide problem,Post said.