ROME (NYTIMES) - Pope Francis issued a rare letter to Catholics around the world on Monday (Aug 20), condemning the "atrocities" of priestly sexual abuse and its cover-up, demanding greater accountability, and asking his flock to "join forces in uprooting this culture of death".
The Pope said that the Church would spare no effort to ensure that such situations never happened again.
But he acknowledged that much damage had already been done and that the Church had fallen short of its responsibilities, to children, and to the faithful.
"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, realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives," the Pontiff wrote.
"We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them."
A Vatican spokesman said it may have been the first time a pope has addressed the world's 1.2 billion Catholics about sexual abuse.
Pope Francis' message came before his scheduled trip next weekend to Ireland, where the abuse issue has dominated headlines before the visit, and just days after a searing grand jury report in Pennsylvania found that the Church had covered up the abuse of more than 1,000 minors by some 300 priests over a period of 70 years.
The Pope acknowledged in his letter that "efforts to beg pardon" would never be sufficient. The deep wounds of the victims "never go away", he said.
Over the past two decades, the Church has often resisted acknowledging the scale of the crisis, or even specific sexual abuse scandals as they came to light in parishes and dioceses in multiple countries.
A prominent member of the Pope's commission on the issue resigned last year (2017), saying that forces within the Vatican had impeded the panel's work.
Pope Francis, too, has drawn intense criticism for apparently failing to take some revelations seriously, and in the past few months he has projected a new determination to investigate and address the problem.
In 2010, then Pope Benedict XVI wrote a letter to Ireland's Catholics when the abuse scandal came to the fore there. And earlier this year, Pope Francis wrote to Catholics in Chile after an abuse scandal forced the ecclesiastical hierarchy there to tender their resignations.
In that letter, Pope Francis denounced clericalism, the practice of focusing more on the clergy than on the faithful. He returned to this thought in the letter issued on Monday.
"Clericalism, whether fostered by priests themselves or by lay persons," the Pope wrote, "helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today. To say 'no' to abuse is to say an emphatic 'no' to all forms of clericalism".
The Pope said that it was essential that all Catholics "be able to acknowledge and condemn, with sorrow and shame, the atrocities perpetrated by consecrated persons, clerics, and all those entrusted with the mission of watching over and caring for those most vulnerable. Let us beg forgiveness for our own sins and the sins of others."