VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis said Friday he took personal responsibility for the "evil" of priests who raped and molested children, asking forgiveness from victims and saying the church must be even bolder in its efforts to protect the young. It was the first time a pope has taken personal responsibility for the sex crimes of his priests and begged forgiveness.
Francis' off-the-cuff remarks were the latest sign that he has become sensitized to the gravity of the abuse scandal after coming under criticism from victims' advocacy groups for a perceived lack of attention to, and understanding of, the toll it has taken on the church and its members.
The evolution began last month when he named four women and an abuse survivor to a sex abuse advisory panel that the Vatican has suggested will address the critical issue of sanctioning bishops who cover up for pedophiles.
Francis delivered the comments to members of the International Catholic Child Bureau, a French Catholic network of organizations that protects children's rights. Sitting with them in his library Friday, Francis spoke slowly, deliberately and softly in his native Spanish, deviating from his text.
"I feel compelled to take personal responsibility for all the evil that some priests, many — many in number, (although) not in comparison with the totality — to assume personal responsibility and to ask forgiveness for the damage caused by the sexual abuse of the children," he said.
"The church is aware of this damage," he continued. "We don't want to take a step back in dealing with this problem and the sanctions that must be imposed. On the contrary, I think we must be even stronger! You don't play around with the lives of children."
No pope has ever taken personal responsibility for the tens of thousands of children who were molested by priests over decades as bishops moved them from parish to parish rather than reporting them to police. Pope John Paul II denounced priests who abused children, saying there was no place for them in the priesthood. Pope Benedict XVI expressed sorrow and regret to victims, met with them and even wept with them. But neither ever took personal responsibility for the crimes or begged forgiveness as Francis did.
Last month, Francis named the initial members of a commission to advise him on best practices to combat sexual abuse in the church. Half of the eight members are women and one, Marie Collins, was assaulted by a priest as a child. Collins, who became a well-known activist in the fight for victims' justice, had previously called on Benedict to ask personal forgiveness for the scandal and those church leaders who put loyalty to the church ahead of the safety of children.
The Vatican has said Collins and the other members will now draft the statutes of the commission and would look into the legal "duties and responsibilities" of church personnel, a suggestion that they might take up the critical question of disciplining complicit bishops. Church law provides for sanctions if a bishop is negligent in carrying out his duties, but to date no bishop has been disciplined for protecting an abuser.
Though unclear, Francis' comments about the "sanctions that must be imposed" could be a reference to the need to hold bishops accountable.
Francis named the commission members in March after coming under fire for taking no action since the commission itself was announced in December. Victims groups also have been irked that he hasn't met with survivors and recently told a newspaper that the church had been unfairly attacked for its abuse record. His defensive tone, coupled with the perceived languishing of the commission, led survivors and church commentators to question whether he "got it" on sex abuse.
The main U.S. victim's group, SNAP, said it was waiting for more.
"We beg the world's Catholics: Be impressed by deeds, not words," said SNAP's outreach director Barbara Dorris in a statement. "Until the pope takes decisive action that protects kids, be skeptical and vigilant."
Francis comments during the closed audience were reported in part by Vatican Radio, and Vatican Television excluded them entirely in its initial edit of the audience. The full quote was obtained after The Associated Press requested video of the full comments from Vatican Television.
Mayra Pertossi in Buenos Aires contributed to this report.