VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis said Friday that he takes personal responsibility for the "evil" of priests who raped and molested children, asking for 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 for 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, including an abuse survivor, to a sex abuse advisory panel that the Vatican has suggested will address the critical issue of dealing with 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 the priests 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 for 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 for personal forgiveness for the scandal and those church leaders who put loyalty to the church ahead of the safety of children.