Britain's Catholic leadership took the unprecedented step yesterday of issuing a joint public apology for the child abuse scandal, describing it as a "profound scandal" that has brought "deep shame to the whole Church".
In a statement which will be sent out to all parishes in England and Wales this weekend, the Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols called on the Church to collectively pray for forgiveness from those who were abused by clerics.
"We express our heartfelt apology and deep sorrow to those who have suffered abuse, those who have felt ignored, disbelieved or betrayed," he said. "We ask their pardon, and the pardon of God for these terrible deeds done in our midst. There can be no excuses."
The Archbishop of Westminster, the leader of Catholics in England and Wales, admitted that there had often been an "inadequate response by some church leaders" to the "terrible crimes". But he assured Catholics that adequate safeguards had now been put in place to ensure that paedophile priests are rooted out and punished by both church and secular authorities.
"We are committed to continuing the work of safeguarding, and are determined to maintain openness and transparency," he said.
The emergence of new and historical abuse scandals in mainland Europe and Latin America have thrown the Catholic Church into one of its worst crises. The furore surrounding the Church's role in covering up abuse has threatened to undermine the Pope's visit to Britain this summer. Yesterday's statement is an attempt by the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales to try to smooth over some of the criticism ahead of the Pope's arrival.
Archbishop Nichols is widely perceived in the Vatican as being the man who led Britain's crusade against paedophile priests in the early 2000s, cleaning up the Church's image and implementing strict safeguards for children. It is a model that has since been copied by other churches hit by similar scandals.