Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier, Archbishop of Durban, described pedophilia as a disorder during an interview with BBC Radio Saturday.
"From my experience, pedophilia is actually an illness. It's not a criminal condition, it's an illness," Napier said.
Citing two priests who were abused as children and went on to become pedophiles, Napier said he didn't think people damaged in that way could be blamed.
"Now don't tell me that those people are criminally responsible like somebody who chooses to do something like that,” Napier said. “I don't think you can really take the position and say that person deserves to be punished. He was himself damaged."
"What do you do with disorders? You've got to try and put them right," he said "If I -- as a normal being -- choose to break the law, knowing that I'm breaking the law, then I think I need to be punished."
After his comments caused an uproar, Napier admitted the "wheels came off," issuing a statement through the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference clarifying his remarks Monday.
"To illustrate the complexity of the issue, I raised the question of the offender who had himself been abused, and with one particular case in mind opined that he needed treatment rather than punishment. That’s when the wheels came off...
The point was and still is: Child Sexual Abuse is a heinous crime among other things because of the damage it does to the child. In that concern I include the abused who has become an abuser."
In his statement, Napier complained that he was subjected to an interrogation, even when he tried to speak with his BBC interviewer again to clarify. Still, to the victims of abuse and those offended, Napier apologized.
"I apologize sincerely and unreservedly to all who were offended by the botched interview, and especially to those who have been abused and need every help and support that the Church can give," he said.
Napier, who was one of the 115 cardinals to elect Pope Francis last week, was on air to speak with BBC Radio 5's Stephen Nolan.
The sex abuse scandal has marred Catholic church proceedings, particularly since 2001.