VATICAN CITY/BOSTON • The Vatican expressed "shame and sorrow", in its first response to a damning report by a US grand jury on sexual abuse of children by priests in Pennsylvania, with Pope Francis saying that he is on the side of victims.
The statement on Thursday was issued after revelations surfaced that Roman Catholic priests in Pennsylvania sexually abused about 1,000 people over seven decades, with the Vatican vowing to hold abusers and those who protected them accountable.
In a long statement that broke the Vatican's silence over the report that has shaken the American Church, spokesman Greg Burke said the Holy See was taking the report "with great seriousness".
He stressed the "need to comply" with civil law, including mandatory reporting of abuse against minors, and said Pope Francis understands how "these crimes can shake the faith and spirit of believers".
"Victims should know that the Pope is on their side," the Vatican said in the statement. "Those who have suffered are his priority, and the Church wants to listen to them to root out this tragic horror that destroys the lives of the innocent."
"There are two words that can express the feelings faced with these horrible crimes: shame and sorrow," it said.
The grand jury on Tuesday released the findings of the largest investigation of sex abuse in the US Catholic Church, finding that 301 priests in the state had sexually abused minors over the past 70 years. It contained graphic examples of children being groomed and sexually abused by priests.
Mr Burke's statement came hours after US bishops called for a Vatican-led probe backed by lay investigators into allegations of sexual abuse by former Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who resigned last month. The Vatican did not directly address their request.
Pope Francis accepted the resignation of now Archbishop McCarrick last month after US church officials said allegations that he sexually abused a 16-year-old boy almost 50 years ago were credible and substantiated. The archbishop is possibly the first cardinal to resign since French theologian Louis Billot, who, according to US newspaper National Catholic Reporter, left over a disagreement with Pope Pius XI in 1927.
The Pennsylvania grand jury report was the latest revelation in a scandal that erupted onto the global stage in 2002, when the Boston Globe newspaper reported that for decades, priests had sexually assaulted minors while church leaders covered up their crimes.
Similar reports have emerged in Europe, Australia and Chile, prompting lawsuits and investigations, sending dioceses into bankruptcy and undercutting the moral authority of the leadership of the Catholic Church, which has some 1.2 billion members around the world.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE