In an unprecedented letter released Monday, Pope Francis acknowledged "with shame and repentance" the Catholic Church's decades-long failure to take action over the "atrocities" committed by priests against children, and demanded accountability from future leaders.
"We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them," he wrote in his 2,000-word letter published in full by the Vatican News.
In the letter addressed to "the people of God," Francis asked his fellow Catholics' help in uprooting "this culture of death."
"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 further wrote.
The letter marks one of Francis's most blunt attempts to address the abuse cases that have been eroding the Roman Catholic Church's credibility over the past several decades, as he includes sharp calls for improved accountability. While Francis acknowledged systemic change is much needed with the church's structure, he proposed no concrete plan as to how the change should be implemented.
Francis also addressed the Catholic Church's tendency to cover up cases of abuse. Francis's letter comes less than a week after a grand jury report released by the Pennsylvania attorney general contended that church leaders protected more than 300 "predator priests" in six dioceses across the state for decades at the expense of more than 1,000 victims, according to Reuters.
The abuses detailed in the Pennsylvania report included crimes against children—some as young as 2-years-old—dating back to at least 1947. Some of the children who were abused were also beaten with whips and shared in a "ring of predatory priests" within the Pittsburgh diocese, the report said, according to USA Today.
Francis said the Pennsylvania report reflected "abuse of power and of conscience."
A Vatican official told Reuters that Francis's letter marks the first time a pope has addressed all of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics about sexual abuse. Past letters on different scandals have been addressed to bishops and faithful in individual countries.
In addition to the recent Pennsylvania case, the church is also facing sexual abuse scandals in a number of countries, including the United States, Chile, and Australia. The letter also comes just days before the pope is set to visit Ireland, which is still reeling from the effects of its own abuse crisis.
The U.S. church has also recently been hit by revelations in connection with Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who resigned last month amid allegations he abused seminarians and minors, the Washington Post reported. Despite the reports brought forth by two New Jersey dioceses that they paid out settlements in response to McCarrick's alleged misconduct, McCarrick was able to climb the church's hierarchy, becoming one of the U.S. church's most powerful figures,
"Looking back to the past, no effort to beg pardon and to seek to repair the harm done will ever be sufficient," the pope wrote. "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."