Pope Francis pleas forgiveness for 'evil' priests who sexually abused children

Said he would be stepping up efforts to 'deal with this problem', adding that there would be no going back

Pope Francis made his first public plea for forgiveness on Friday for the “evil” of priests who sexually abused children, vowing that there will be no return in the church's fight to ensure children are protected and justice done.

Using some of his strongest words yet on the Roman Catholic Church's abuse crisis, Pope Francis told the International Catholic Child Bureau - a French Catholic network that protects children's rights - that he would take an even stronger stand than before against the scandal.

He was quoted by Vatican Radio as saying: “I feel compelled to personally take on all the evil that some priests - quite a few in number, (although) obviously not compared to the number of all priests - to personally ask for forgiveness for the damage they have done for having sexually abused children.”

“The Church is aware of this ... personal, moral damage carried out by men of the Church, and we will not take one step backward with regards to how we will deal with this problem, and to the sanctions that must be imposed.

“On the contrary, we have to be even stronger. Because you cannot interfere with children.”

Victims' groups have criticised Francis in recent months for not taking a bold enough stand on the issue and for not meeting with sexual abuse victims in Italy and in a July trip to Brazil.

The Vatican announced in December the creation of a new dedicated group to help the Church fight the abuse crisis but only named its members in late March.

The group of clerics and lay people includes Marie Collins, a survivor of abuse in Ireland in the 1960s who has campaigned for the protection of children and for justice for children who were molested.

Additional reporting from agencies

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