The firestorm ignited on the same day, Wednesday (July 13), that a new poll showed that Santorum, R-Pa., continues to trail state Treasurer Robert P. 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 he and Casey, both anti-abortion Catholics, will be courting the Catholic vote. Experts suggested it may also influence moderate voters, who remain uneasy with Santorum.
"Priests, like all of us, are affected by culture," Santorum wrote in a mostly overlooked July 12, 2002, column for the Web site Catholic Online. "When the culture is sick, every element in it becomes infected. While it is no excuse for this scandal, it is no surprise that Boston, a seat of academic, political and cultural liberalism in America, lies at the center of the storm."
Santorum's comments and his refusal to back away from them even after The Boston Globe reported them this week left abuse victims, analysts and Democrats, particularly those from Massachusetts, up in arms.
"We think his initial comments were off base and hurtful and would hope that he would have grown in his understanding of the crisis over the last three years," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
"It's disturbing that he had a chance to offer a more nuanced and balanced view of the crisis, but chose not to," said Clohessy, whose 6,000-member group includes several hundred in Santorum's home state.
Santorum's comments also prompted a rare personal attack on the Senate floor 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 who stole the innocence of children in the most horrible way imaginable."
Kennedy called Santorum's comments, originally reported by the Philadelphia Daily News and largely overlooked until The Globe reports, "irresponsible, insensitive and inexcusable."
"Abuse against children is not a liberal or conservative issue," said Kennedy. "It's a horrific and unspeakable tragedy. Sadly, it happens in every state of this great nation -- red states and blue states, in the North and in the South, in big cities and small. The victims of child sexual abuse have suffered enough already, and Sen. Santorum should stop making a bad and very tragic situation worse."
Santorum did not address the substance of the criticism and on Thursday fired back at Kennedy and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., accusing them of dredging up his 3-year-old comments for political purposes because the Pennsylvania Senate election is considered the next year's premier contest.
"It's sort of sad that they would use religion and this tragic time for purely partisan, blatantly political purposes," Santorum said. "I guess there is no depth in which they will stoop, including impugning and digging up very, very difficult times and difficult feelings and emotions from people who were harmed by that scandal."
At the time he wrote the column, Santorum said he was working hard with people within the church "to resolve that scandal, to bring the people who were involved to justice, to begin changes within the church so this would not 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 "proper orthodox 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 the church and how the church should handle these problems is something I'm going to take particularly seriously."
Santorum spokesman Robert Traynham said the senator's comments in the column were in the context of liberal-leaning institutions such as Harvard University or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology promoting "a broader culture that unfortunately covered up the sex abuse scandal."
GOP leaders downplayed the impact of the controversy, 16 months before the 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 scandal was in Boston, according to Traynham. But several experts disputed that and said the issue had become much more widespread by that time.
Santorum's July 12, 2002 comments were months after reports that abuse was far more widespread than those in Boston. The New York Times, for example, ran a front page story March 3 of that year on the issue that did not involve Boston-area clergy.
"The offensive thing here is this is an incredibly simplistic, biased view of what is a complex and widespread problem," said Jim Post, a Boston University professor and president of Voice of the Faithful, a 35,000-member Catholic lay organization.
More than 10,000 cases of clergy sex abuse have been documented in the United States and the Vatican has acknowledged it's a worldwide problem, Post said.