Pope Francis has issued a letter to Catholics around the world condemning the “crime” of sexual abuse by priests and subsequent cover-ups.
Francis demanded accountability in response to new revelations in the United States of decades of misconduct by the Catholic Church.
The Pope begged forgiveness for the pain suffered by victims and said lay Catholics must be involved in any effort to root out abuse and cover-ups.
Francis wrote: “We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them.”
The Vatican issued the letter on Monday, ahead of Francis’ trip this weekend to Ireland which is expected to be dominated by the abuse crisis.
In the three-page letter, Francis wrote: “With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realising the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives.”
Sex abuse within the church was always expected to dominate the trip, but the issue has taken on new gravity following revelations in the US that one of Francis’ trusted cardinals, the retired archbishop of Washington Theodore McCarrick, allegedly sexually abused and harassed minors as well as adult seminarians.
In addition, a US grand jury report in Pennsylvania last week reported that at least 1,000 children were victims of some 300 priests over the past 70 years, and that generations of bishops failed repeatedly to take measures to protect their flock or punish the rapists.
In the letter, which was issued in seven languages and addressed to the “People of God”, Francis referenced the Pennsylvania report, acknowledged that no effort to beg forgiveness of the victims will be sufficient, and vowed: “Never again.”
He said, looking to the future, “no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated”.
Francis several years ago scrapped a proposed Vatican tribunal to prosecute negligent bishops, and he has refused to act on credible reports from around the world of bishops who have failed to report abusers to police or otherwise botched handling cases, and yet remain in office.
In Chile, where a church sex abuse scandal exploded earlier this year, Francis strong-armed the 31 active bishops to offer to resign en masse over their handling of abuse. So far he has accepted five of their resignations.
Unlike the US bishops’ conference, which has referred only to “sins and omissions” in their handling of abuse, Francis labelled the misconduct “crimes”.
The Pope wrote: “Let us beg forgiveness for our own sins and the sins of others.
“An awareness of sin helps us to acknowledge the errors, the crimes and the wounds caused in the past and allows us, in the present, to be more open and committed along a journey of renewed conversion.”