Rome (CNN): Pope Francis has told those who abuse minors to hand themselves in to civil justice authorities and “prepare for divine justice,” in his strongest words to date on the sex abuse crisis roiling the Roman Catholic Church.
In his annual speech to the Vatican’s Curia on Friday morning, the Pope also thanked the media for exposing the sex abuse crisis and encouraged survivors to speak out.
“I myself would like to give heartfelt thanks to those media professionals who were honest and objective and sought to unmask these predators and to make their victims’ voices heard,” the Pope said.
“The Church asks that people not be silent… since the greater scandal in this matter is that of cloaking the truth,” he said.
“To those who abuse minors I would say this — convert and hand yourself over to human justice and prepare for divine justice.”
Francis has come under increasing pressure to act decisively on the sex abuse crisis, following a year of continuing revelations of abuse and cover-up that have put his credibility on the line.
In May, the entire bishops’ conference of Chile offered to resign in the wake of sexual abuse scandals there, and Francis admitted that he, too, “was part of the problem.”
In August, a Pennsylvania grand jury report was released detailing the horrific stories of some 300 priests who were accused of sexually abusing more than 1,000 child victims since 1947. A week later, the Vatican’s ex-ambassador to Washington alleged that the Pope himself knew about accusations of sexual abuse by former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick for five years, but failed to remove him.
The Pope responded that he “would not say a single word” on the matter. McCarrick, who once led the Archdiocese of Washington, denied wrongdoing and eventually resigned, but Francis’ silence created further doubt and confusion in the Catholic Church.
The Pope has called for the first global meeting of bishops to take place at the Vatican in February to discuss sexual abuse. Given the tumultuous events of the past year, that meeting now becomes a decisive one for the credibility of Francis’ papacy.
“This coming February, the Church will restate her firm resolve to pursue unstintingly a path of purification,” said Francis in his remarks Friday. “She will question, with the help of experts, how best to protect children, to avoid these tragedies, to bring healing and restoration to the victims, and to improve the training imparted in seminaries.
“An effort will be made to make past mistakes opportunities for eliminating this scourge, not only from the body of the Church but also from that of society.”
The Pope vowed the church would “never seek to hush up or not take seriously any case,” while admitting its record was flawed.
“It is undeniable that some in the past, out of irresponsibility, disbelief, lack of training, inexperience, or spiritual and human short-sightedness, treated many cases without the seriousness and promptness that was due,” he said. “That must never happen again.”
Francis also acknowledged the difficulties faced by those people who do come forward with allegations of abuse, saying “the guilty are capable of skillfully covering their tracks” even from those closest to them.
“The victims too, carefully selected by their predators, often prefer silence and live in fear of shame and the terror of rejection,” he said.
Survivors of clerical abuse have previously accused Francis of doing too little to tackle the crisis and of minimizing the church’s responsibility.