VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis on Sunday strongly condemned clerical sexual abuse — vowing to protect "little ones" from "ravenous wolves" — but stopped short of proposing major new measures to combat the problem.
"No abuse should ever be covered up as was often the case in the past or not taken sufficiently seriously, since the covering up of abuses favors the spread of evil and adds a further level of scandal," he said on the final day of a landmark Vatican conference on the subject.
At the end of the four-day summit — the Vatican's latest attempt to come to grips with a crisis that has engulfed the Church — Francis promised that guidelines used by bishops' conferences to prevent abuse and punish perpetrators will be reviewed and strengthened.
In the speech delivered in front of some 190 senior Catholic bishops and religious superiors, the pope called abuse involving children a "universal problem."
"The church has now become increasingly aware of the need not only to curb the gravest cases of abuse by disciplinary measures and civil and canonical processes, but also to decisively confront the phenomenon both inside and outside," he said. "She feels called to combat this evil that strikes at the very heart of her mission, which is to preach the Gospel to the little ones and to protect them from ravenous wolves."
"The church will never seek to hush up or not take seriously any case," he said at the end of Mass celebrated in the Sala Regia, one of the grand, frescoed reception rooms of the Vatican's Apostolic Palace.
"In people's justified anger, the church sees the reflection of the wrath of God, betrayed and insulted by these deceitful consecrated persons," he said.
The Jesuit pope added that the vast majority of sexual abuse occurs within the family, and in a bid to contextualize what he said was once a taboo subject, offered a global review of the wider problem of sexual tourism and online pornography.
But while he acknowledged the grief of victims and offered a list of measures to combat abuse, Francis offered little in the way of new approaches. He also didn't specifically outline whether the church would adopt a zero-tolerance approach to the clergy who commit or cover up abuse.
clerical abuse scandal
On Saturday, a German Roman Catholic cardinal said the church "destroyed" documents in an effort to cover up sexual abuse, adding that he does not think it was an isolated case.
"Files that could have documented the terrible deeds and named those responsible were destroyed, or not even created," Cardinal Reinhard Marx told church leaders at the summit.
Ahead of the summit on Wednesday, survivors of clergy sex abuse gathered in Rome to demand transparency and zero tolerance for abuse.
The summit began days after a formerly high-ranking American cardinal Theodore McCarrick was expelled from the priesthood after a Vatican investigation found sex abuse allegations against him were credible.
Claudio Lavanga and Anne Thompson reported from Rome, Yuliya Talmazan from London.