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Vatican tells Catholic priest abuse victims: 'The pope is on their side'

In its first statement on the Pennsylvania sexual abuse report, the Vatican said it must "learn hard lessons from its past."
Image: Pope Francis
Pope Francis waves to pilgrims from the window of his studio overlooking St. Peter's Square during a celebration of the Feast of Assumption at the Vatican on Wednesday.Filippo Monteforte / AFP - Getty Images

In its first comment since a Pennsylvania grand jury detailed allegations of rampant sexual abuse in parishes across the state for decades, the Vatican on Thursday said it felt "shame and sorrow" and told victims: "The pope is on your side."

The Vatican chose to wait two days to react to the 1,356-page report, which alleged that 301 "predator priests" abused more than 1,000 children in six of the state's eight dioceses. Wednesday was the Feast of the Assumption, an important Catholic celebration and a national holiday in Italy.

"The abuses described in the report are criminal and morally reprehensible," the Vatican said. "Those acts were betrayals of trust that robbed survivors of their dignity and their faith."

The statement said most of the report found "almost no cases after 2002," which it said was "consistent with previous studies showing that Catholic Church reforms in the United States drastically reduced the incidence of clergy child abuse."

But it said the church must still "learn hard lessons from its past," adding: "There should be accountability for both abusers and those who permitted abuse to occur."

The pope has struggled to calm the choppy waters of the church abuse scandal that he inherited from Pope Benedict XVI in 2013.

Francis has repeatedly apologized both for decades of abuse by priests around the world and for the church's past systematic efforts to keep them secret. But his attempts to formalize reform have been hit or miss.

Three years ago, Francis proposed creating a formal tribunal to prosecute bishops who covered up for pedophile priests. But he abandoned the proposal the following year after influential figures in the Vatican's notoriously stubborn permanent bureaucracy raised legal and procedural objections.

Four months ago, Francis acknowledged "grave errors" in judgment in his response to a scandal in Chile after he initially defended a bishop who was accused of having known about abuses by a priest in the southern city of Osorno.

Francis at first accused abuse victims of "calumny" for their allegations against the bishop, Juan Barros, and declared, "I am convinced he is innocent."

But after he received a report from his most senior abuse investigator, Francis apologized to the victims and said, "I confess this caused me pain and shame."

The results of the investigation haven't been made public. But in May, after a crisis meeting with the pope, all of Chile's 34 bishops offered their resignations. Francis accepted three of them, including that of Barros.