'We showed no care for the little ones': Pope's letter vows to end sex abuse, coverups

Pope Francis, facing simultaneous clergy sexual abuse crises in several countries, has written an unprecedented letter to the world's Catholics, asking them to help uproot "this culture of death" and vowing there would be no more coverups.

Letter marks 1st time a pontiff has written to world's 1.2 billion Catholics on sex abuse

Pope Francis arrives to deliver a speech on Sunday at St. Peter's Square in the Vatican. The Pope’s letter was released after a grand jury released the findings of the largest-ever investigation of sex abuse in the U.S. Catholic Church last week. (Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images)

Pope Francis, facing simultaneous clergy sexual abuse crises in several countries, has written an unprecedented letter to the world's Catholics, asking them to help uproot "this culture of death" and vowing there would be no more coverups.

In a highly personal letter addressed to "the people of God," Church language for all members, the Pope appeared to be launching an appeal for all Catholics to face the crisis together and not let it tear the church apart.

The Catholic Church in the United States, Chile, Australia, and Ireland — where the Pope is making a two-day visit this weekend — are reeling from crises involving sexual abuse of minors. Numerous surveys have pointed to plummeting confidence in the church in those countries and elsewhere.

He needs an effective discipline process for bishops and religious superiors who are known to have enabled abuse.- Anne Barrett-Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.or

In his letter, the Pope referred to the suffering endured by minors due to sexual abuse at the hands of a "significant number of clerics and consecrated persons."

The Vatican said it was the first time a pope had written to all of the world's some 1.2 billion Catholics about sexual abuse. Past letters on sexual abuse scandals have been addressed to bishops and faithful of individual countries.

"We have realized that these wounds never disappear and that they require us forcefully to condemn these atrocities and join forces in uprooting this culture of death," he wrote.

"With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives. We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them."

More actions, less words.- Anne Barrett-Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org

Advocates for victims of clergy sexual abuse expressed disappointment.

"More actions, less words," said Anne Barrett-Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, a U.S.-based resource centre that tracks cases of clerical abuse worldwide.

"He needs an effective discipline process for bishops and religious superiors who are known to have enabled abuse."

Last week, a grand jury in Pennsylvania released the findings of the largest-ever investigation of sex abuse in the U.S. Catholic Church, finding that 301 priests in the U.S. state had sexually abused minors over the past 70 years.

Pennsylvania's top law enforcement official said he hopes the state's Roman Catholic leaders will "cease their denials and deflections" about the grand jury report. Attorney General Josh Shapiro, whose office ran the investigation, said the pope's letter "acknowledges the painful truth."

He said church leaders should support recommendations that include expanding the state's statute of limitations.

Letter offers no solution: Victim

A man who testified to the grand jury that he was molested repeatedly by a priest as a teenager says the pope's letter offers no solutions in the Catholic Church's approach to fighting child sexual abuse by priests.

Jim Faluszczak said Monday that if Francis can't immediately offer solutions, he should step aside so Roman Catholics can find another pope who can. Faluszczak suggested the pope strip titles from certain church officials.

The 49-year-old Faluszczak became a priest, but has left active ministry and now works with sexual abuse victims.

Pope Francis acknowledged "the heart-wrenching pain of these victims, which cries out to heaven, was long ignored, kept quiet or silenced."

"Looking ahead to the future, no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated," he said.

He also acknowledged that the implementation of a zero tolerance had been "delayed" in some places.

Search for accountability

Victims' groups have said that while new policies have been put in place in several countries to alert civil authorities about cases of abuse, the Pope still needs to do more to hold accountable bishops who covered it up, mostly by moving priests from parish to parish.

In his first direct response to the U.S. grand jury report, Francis said that while most cases it listed "belong to the past," it was clear the abuse cited "was long ignored, kept quiet or silenced."

Pope Francis reaches out to hug Cardinal Archbishop emeritus Theodore McCarrick after the Midday Prayer of the Divine on September 2015. Francis accepted McCarrick's offer to resign from the College of Cardinals on July 28. (Jonathan Newton/Associated Press)

Last month, Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, D.C., and one of the U.S. church's most prominent figures, stepped down as a cardinal after accusations that he abused two minors about 50 years ago and later abused adult seminarians.

He was believed to be the first cardinal to lose his red hat in nearly a century and the first ever for alleged sexual abuse.

In May, all 34 of Chile's bishops offered their resignation to the Pope over a widening sexual abuse crisis there. He has so far accepted five of the resignations.

With files from The Associated Press