LONDON (Reuters) - The family of the BBC presenter at the center of a sex abuse scandal that has rocked the broadcaster offered its "deepest sympathy" to the late Jimmy Savile's victims on Saturday, saying it felt "despair and sadness".
The statement came as the Roman Catholic Church in England said it had written to the Vatican to ask whether it was possible to strip Savile of a papal knighthood due to allegations he had sexually abused young girls.
Police said earlier this week that some 300 victims had come forward and that they were preparing to make arrests in a scandal that has already damaged the internationally-renowned broadcaster's reputation.
Savile's nephew Roger Foster said in a statement that the family had been unaware of Savile's "darker side", and was struggling to reconcile the image of the man they loved with allegations that were becoming overwhelming.
"How could the person we thought we knew and loved do such a thing?" said the statement. "We recognize that even our own despair and sadness does not compare to that felt by the victims."
Savile, a cigar-chomping former DJ who was one of the BBC's top presenters, died last year aged 84.
The scandal has destroyed the reputation of a man who had been widely admired and honored for his charity work and has raised troubling questions about the BBC's management and its workplace culture in the past.
Police have said Savile was "undoubtedly" one of Britain's most prolific sex offenders, while the head of the BBC's governing body has called the allegations a "tsunami of filth".
"Our thoughts and our prayers are with those who have suffered from every kind of abuse over so many years and we offer our deepest sympathy in what must have been a terrible time for all of them," the family statement to the Yorkshire Evening Post newspaper read.
Foster said he had watched "in horror" as British TV channel ITV first aired an expose "with allegations of a darker side to him that we knew nothing about".
"This wasn't the man we knew and loved," Foster said, saying "the allegations are very serious and we began to have doubts as to our own feeling towards our uncle."
Faced with growing public outrage at the allegations, Foster said the family had decided to remove the headstone on Savile's grave and destroy it to avoid it becoming a target for vandals.
BBC Director General George Entwistle, who has been sharply criticized by politicians for his handling of the case, has said the broadcaster has been damaged by the case.
The scandal has reached beyond Britain, generating huge attention in the United States, where Entwistle's predecessor at the BBC, Mark Thompson, is poised to take over as chief executive of the New York Times.
It has also now reached the Vatican after the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England, Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols, wrote a letter.
"The archbishop has written to the competent office of the Holy See with a request to investigate if anything can be done about Savile's papal knighthood," the archbishop's spokesman said, adding that the letter was sent last week.
"While we have to await the outcome of the police investigation, the allegations are deeply shocking," he said.
The papal knighthood is one of the highest honors bestowed by the pope and is reserved for lay people and the military. It was instituted in 1831 by Pope Gregory XVI.
British media reports said Savile had been made a knight by the late Pope John Paul II in 1990 for his charity work.
The Catholic Church has been rocked by child abuse scandals in Europe and the United States in recent years, forcing it to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation worldwide. The scandals have damaged its status as a moral arbiter.
It was unclear if the honor could be withdrawn posthumously.
The spokesman for the English church, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with policy, said that "while it's clear that the honor dies with the person," Nichols had acted "in recognition of the deep distress of those who have suffered abuse and the disquiet at Mr Savile's name remaining on the papal list".
(Additional reporting by Philip Pullella at the Vatican; Editing by Andrew Osborn)