By Philip Pullella
ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE (Reuters) - Pope Francis, facing clergy sex abuse scandals in several countries, said on Tuesday that the Roman Catholic Church has "spared no effort" to tackle the problem in recent years.
But, speaking to reporters aboard the papal plane while returning from a four-day trip to the Baltics, the pope again appeared to indirectly acknowledge that the Church had hidden sexual abuse "in the past century," saying that such cover-ups had been common in families as well.
Francis referred to a damning report last August by a U.S. grand jury on sexual abuse of children by priests in Pennsylvania over a 70-year period. He noted that the incidents of abuse diminished towards the end of the years covered in the report.
"In more recent times the number went down because the Church realised that it had to fight in a different way," he said.
"In olden times, these things were covered up, they were even covered up in homes, when an uncle raped a niece, when a father raped his children. It was covered up because it was an enormous shame. That was the mentality in the last century," he said.
"Look at the proportions (in the Pennsylvania report) and you will see that when the Church started becoming aware of this, it spared no effort," he said.
Francis appeared to be referring to new rules put into place for preventing and reporting sexual abuse in the United States following the first big media expose of abuse in Boston in 2002.
The atmosphere during the nearly one-hour news conference was somewhat tense as the pope insisted that he first answer questions directly related to his trip, which took him to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
Francis initially declined to take a question from a German reporter about the release of a research report hours earlier in her country that found that thousands of children had been sexually abused by clergy over a 70-year-period ending in 2014
He later began speaking about sexual abuse without being prompted.
"We all know the statistics (of the prevalence of sexual abuse within families), ... but as long as there is just one priest who abuses a boy or a girl this is monstrous because that man was chosen by God to lead children to heaven," Francis said.
The Church is grappling with a wave of new cases in countries including Chile, Germany and the United States.
Francis has come under fire from victims groups and other members of the Church who say he has not done enough to make bishops accountable for mishandling or covering up abuse cases.
(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Leslie Adler)