Pope 'personally compelled' to ask forgiveness for 'evil' child abuse
Pope Francis has given his strongest statement yet on the sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church in recent years.
Speaking to members of BICE (International Catholic Child Bureau) in the Vatican today, the Pontiff spoke of his deep sorrow and anger at the actions of clergy who have been implicated in the allegations.
According to Vatican Radio, he said: "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.
"The Church is aware of this damage, it is personal, moral damage carried out by men of the Church, and we will not take one step backward with regards to how we will deal with this problem, and the sanctions that must be imposed.
"On the contrary, we have to be even stronger," he promised.
His words are likely to be welcomed by those critical of the way the Church has dealt with the scandals in the past.
The Vatican is under intense pressure to explain the way it has dealt with allegations of sex abuse by members of its clergy, following years of reports suggesting some bishops have covered up or turned a blind eye to crimes committed within their jurisdiction.
Accusations have been made on a global scale. In September 2010, the details of around 300 cases of alleged sexual abuse by Belgian clergy were released, while a 2012 Australian police report detailed the suicides of 40 people who had been abused by Catholic priests.
Between 1984 and 2009, over 3,000 lawsuits were filed against Catholic clergy in the US, and the Church has reportedly paid out over $3billion in settlements to victims.
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Italian officials admitted in 2010 that approximately 100 reports against paedophile priests had been made over a period of 10 years, while the John Jay report of 2009 found that sexual abuse was "endemic" in US Catholic boys' institutions for much of the 20th century. In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI and Catholic bishops in Ireland apologised after a report concluded that clergy had deliberately failed to report abuse by priests in order to protect the Church's reputation.
In January of this year, a representative of the Church was forced to stand before the UN Committee of the Convention of the Rights of the Child to give account of the measures being taken by the Vatican to tackle the issue.
In his address before the committee, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi stated: "The protection of children remains a major concern for contemporary society and the Holy See."
He reaffirmed a commitment "to holding inviolable the dignity and entire person of every child".
"There is no excuse for any form of violence or exploitation of children. Such crimes can never be justified," he added.
Pope Francis has repeatedly stated his determination to eradicate sexual abuse within the Church, labelling such action as vital in order to maintain credibility.
Following his election in March 2013 he declared that the Vatican would "act decisively as far as cases of sexual abuse are concerned, promoting measures to protect minors, help for those who have suffered such violence in the past [and] the necessary procedures against those who are guilty".