VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis strongly condemned clerical sexual abuse during a speech ending a landmark Vatican conference on the subject Sunday, but stopped short of proposing new policies to combat the crisis engulfing the Catholic Church.
"No abuse should ever be covered up as was often the case in the past or not taken sufficiently seriously, since the covering up of abuses favors the spread of evil and adds a further level of scandal," he said.
At the end of the four-day summit — the Vatican's latest attempt to come to grips with the issue — Francis promised that guidelines used by bishops' conferences to prevent abuse and punish perpetrators will be reviewed and strengthened.
Speaking to some 190 senior Catholic bishops and religious superiors, the pope called abuse involving children a "universal problem."
"The church has now become increasingly aware of the need not only to curb the gravest cases of abuse by disciplinary measures and civil and canonical processes, but also to decisively confront the phenomenon both inside and outside," Francis said. "She feels called to combat this evil that strikes at the very heart of her mission, which is to preach the Gospel to the little ones and to protect them from ravenous wolves."
"The church will never seek to hush up or not take seriously any case," he added at the end of Mass celebrated in the Sala Regia, one of the grand, frescoed reception rooms of the Vatican's Apostolic Palace.
The Jesuit pope added that the vast majority of sexual abuse occurs within the family, and in a bid to contextualize what he said was once a taboo subject, offered a global review of the wider problem of sexual tourism and online pornography.
But while he acknowledged the grief of victims and offered a list of measures to combat abuse, Francis offered little in the way of new approaches during the speech. He also didn't specifically outline whether the church would adopt a zero-tolerance approach to the clergy who commit or cover up abuse.
Tim Lennon, the head of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), told NBC News he feels Pope Francis was “compelled” to hold the summit because of the exposure of widespread sexual abuse and cover-up.
He said the pope’s concluding remarks left him wishing for more.
"We’ve heard this condemnation, the apologies, the penance, the fasting, but they are all words," said Lennon. "Unless he starts to fire a bishop who covered up sexual abuse and there are known, proven bishops, who have done that, then it just rings hollow.”
Later on Sunday, summit moderator and former Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi clarified the first steps that the church will be taking in the aftermath of the summit.
He said that in the near future the Vatican will issue a child protection policy and guidelines for preventing sexual abuse of minors for Vatican City State, as well as a handbook that will help bishops understand their duties and responsibilities will be published in a few weeks.
Lombardi also said task forces of "competent persons" will be created to help dioceses and episcopal conferences that find it difficult to confront the problems, and produce initiatives for the protection of minors.
On Saturday, a German Roman Catholic cardinal said the church "destroyed" documents in an effort to cover up sexual abuse, adding that he does not think it was an isolated case.
"Files that could have documented the terrible deeds and named those responsible were destroyed, or not even created," Cardinal Reinhard Marx told church leaders at the summit.
Ahead of the summit on Wednesday, survivors of clergy sex abuse gathered in Rome to demand transparency and zero tolerance for abuse.
The summit began days after a formerly high-ranking American cardinal Theodore McCarrick was expelled from the priesthood after a Vatican investigation found sex abuse allegations against him were credible.
Claudio Lavanga and Anne Thompson reported from the Vatican, Yuliya Talmazan from London.