Catholic bishops in England and Wales today offered a full apology and said there were "no excuses" for the child abuse scandals that have rocked the church.
A joint statement presented by the Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols was issued on behalf of the bishops at the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales and will go out to all parishes at the end of a plenary meeting in Leeds.
The statement described the crimes carried out by some priests and religious figures as a "profound scandal" and said: "They bring deep shame to the whole church. But shame is not enough. The abuse of children is a grievous sin against God.
"Therefore we focus not on shame but on our sorrow for these sins.
"They are the personal sins of only a very few. But we are bound together in the Body of Christ and, therefore, their sins touch us all.
"We express our heartfelt apology and deep sorrow to those who have suffered abuse, those who have felt ignored, disbelieved or betrayed.
"We ask their pardon, and the pardon of God for these terrible deeds done in our midst. There can be no excuses."
The statement said the church would work with safeguarding commissions within its dioceses to ensure relevant steps were taken to protect against any further abuse and atone for those who were already victims.
"In our dioceses we will continue to make every effort, working with our safeguarding commissions, to identify any further steps we can take," the statement said, "especially concerning the care of those who have suffered abuse, including anyone yet to come forward with their account of their painful and wounded past.
"We are committed to continuing the work of safeguarding, and are determined to maintain openness and transparency, in close co-operation with the statutory authorities in our countries."
The statement also invited catholics in England and Wales to hold special days of prayer on the four Fridays of next month for all those involved with the scandal, and added: "We commit ourselves afresh to the service of children, young people and the vulnerable in our communities. We have faith and hope in the future."
The pope yesterday made his first public remarks calling for change since the crisis erupted.
During his weekly audience in St Peter's Square, Pope Benedict spoke of a statement earlier issued by the Vatican pledging the church would take action to confront the clerical sex abuse scandal.
The statement said the church would do everything in its power to bring justice to abusive priests and would implement "effective measures" to protect children.
The pope has also accepted the resignation of Bishop James Moriarty, who admitted in December that he had not challenged the Dublin archdioceses' past practice of concealing child abuse complaints from police.
After reading out the statement in Leeds, Archbishop Nichols was asked why this apology was being made today and not in a church.
He said: "The media coverage of these events around the world has been intense especially since before Easter, since the beginning of Lent, over the last six weeks or so.
"This is the first residential meeting we've had, so this is the first time we've met as a group of bishops for the last six months.
"So it was imperative that we spent a lot of time reflecting together and coming to a common mind and taking a public position.
"This is the time of our meeting. This is the time we do this."
Asked if he thought the scandal will affect the proposed visit by the Pope, the archbishop said: "I think the Pope's visit will be a very, very important moment for the life of this country.
"And I'm sure that his message, which is challenging, which is intelligent, which is perceptive, will in fact be listened to and received with great attention.
"So we are preparing well for the Pope's visit."
Archbishop Nichols added: "I believe history will prove him to have been a great Pope who understood the gravity of these matters."
He said he believed Pope Benedict took "profound and robust steps" as a cardinal, even before he became Pope.
The archbishop confirmed the statement would be sent to all churches, adding: "I wouldn't be surprised if in some churches it is read out too."
The archbishop was speaking at a press conference at Hinsley Hall, in Headingley, Leeds.