THIS WEEK IN GOD…. First up from the God Machine this week are the latest developments in our ongoing coverage of the devastating scandal surrounding the Roman Catholic Church, the sexual abuse of children, and an apparent cover-up. This week, the pope tried a shift in tone, but it did little to quell the larger controversy.

In his most direct reference to the sex abuse crisis that has touched the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI said Thursday that it was necessary for Christians to “repent” in light of “the attacks of the world, which speaks to us of our sins.”

But in an approach typical of the tough-minded yet media-averse theologian, Benedict aimed his message directly at the church, offering his remarks in an off-the-cuff homily at a small, untelevised Mass at the Vatican.

“I have to say that we Christians, even in recent times, have often avoided the word ‘repentance,’ which seems too harsh,” Benedict said at a Mass later broadcast on Vatican Radio.

“Now under the attacks of the world, which speaks to us of our sins, we see that the ability to repent is a grace, and we see how it is necessary to repent, that is, to recognize what is wrong in our life,” he added.

The unscripted remarks were something of a departure from the usual line taken by church officials, but they weren’t necessarily compelling to victims and their families. Mark Serrano, a spokesman for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said in a statement, “Sadly, once again, the globe’s most powerful religious figure will win headlines for uttering a couple of sentences, when he should in fact be taking dramatic steps to safeguard kids.”

Making matters slightly worse was the pope’s reference to the notion that the church is “now under the attacks of the world,” as if the substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of children make the church somehow the victim of unfair criticism.

The scandal, in other words, continues.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments this week in the year’s biggest church-state case, involving a Christian student organization at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law. The state school only funds and recognizes student groups that don’t discriminate on the basis of “race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, disability, age, sex or sexual orientation.” The on-campus chapter of the Christian Legal Society refuses to allow LGBT students to join, so Hastings lost its status as an official student group. The student group is claiming “discrimination” against conservative Christian beliefs, while the school believes it is not legally required to subsidize groups that show prejudice towards other students. [corrected]

* The late Jerry Falwell’s university will host a major religious right gathering this week called “The Awakening 2010,” featuring a variety of right-wing heavyweights from the theocratic wing of the conservative movement. Among the attendees: Virginia’s controversial state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R).

* A Pittsburgh-area Roman Catholic bishop will no longer allow nuns who supported health care reform to “promote their recruitment events in his parishes or in the diocesan newspaper.” (thanks to K.M. for the tip)

* And in Florida, Republican state lawmakers are moving forward with a proposed state constitutional amendment “allowing state money to flow to religious organizations.” Florida’s Constitution currently mandates that houses of worship and religious ministries rely on voluntary contributions, but conservative Republicans want to amend it to allow officials to give taxpayer money directly to the faith-based institutions. (thanks to D.J. for the tip)

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.