Pope Francis asked for forgiveness on behalf of priests who sexually abused children and said the Catholic Church must do more to rectify the damage and punish the offenders.
“We will not take one step backward with regards to how we will deal with this problem, and the sanctions that must be imposed,” Francis said today in a statement posted on the website of Vatican Radio. “On the contrary, we have to be even stronger.”
Francis, 77, is responding to criticism that the church hasn’t done enough to protect children from attackers within the clergy. The Holy See has allowed alleged predators to strike again because it was more concerned about safeguarding its reputation than helping victims, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child said in a February report.
“I feel compelled to personally take on all the evil which some priests, quite a few in number, obviously not compared to the number of all the priests, to personally ask for forgiveness for the damage they have done for having sexually abused children,” Francis said.
The church’s decades-long struggle with child molestation, which the UN panel said has claimed tens of thousands of victims worldwide, may be the biggest challenge that Francis inherited when he took over last year. A “code of silence” has been imposed on clergy in cases of child sex abuse, and nuns and priests have been demoted and let go for stepping out of line, the committee said.
Francis has been hailed as a potential reformer after the abuse scandal weakened his predecessor, Pope Benedict, in the final years of a reign that ended in resignation. The Argentine pontiff has taken on money laundering at the Vatican bank, signaled an easing of the church’s traditional stance against homosexuality and repeatedly spoken up about the injustice of income inequality.