Vatican City/Boston: The Vatican expressed "shame and sorrow" on Thursday over revelations that Roman Catholic priests in Pennsylvania sexually abused about 1,000 people over seven decades, vowing to hold abusers and those who protected them accountable.
In a long statement that broke the Vatican's silence over a damning US grand jury report that has shaken the American Church, spokesman Greg Burke said the Holy See was taking the report "with great seriousness".
He stressed the "need to comply" with civil law, including mandatory reporting of abuse against minors and said Pope Francis understands how "these crimes can shake the faith and spirit of believers" and that the pontiff wanted to "root out this tragic horror".
The grand jury on Tuesday released the findings of the largest-ever investigation of sex abuse in the US Catholic Church, finding that 301 priests in the state had sexually abused minors over the past 70 years. It contained graphic examples of children being groomed and sexually abused by priests.
"The abuses described in the report are criminal and morally reprehensible. Those acts were betrayals of trust that robbed survivors of their dignity and their faith," Burke said.
"The Church must learn hard lessons from its past, and there should be accountability for both abusers and those who permitted abuse to occur," he said.
His statement came hours after US bishops called for a Vatican-led probe backed by lay investigators into allegations of sexual abuse by former Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who resigned last month. The Vatican did not directly address their request.
Pope Francis accepted McCarrick's resignation in July after American church officials said allegations that he sexually abused a 16-year-old boy almost 50 years ago were credible and substantiated.
McCarrick was possibly the first cardinal to resign since French theologian Louis Billot, who according to the National Catholic Reporter, a US newspaper, left over a disagreement with Pope Pius XI in 1927.
"The overarching goal in all of this is stronger protections against predators in the Church and anyone who would conceal them, protections that will hold bishops to the highest standards of transparency and accountability," Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement.
The bishops said they would create a new way to report accusations of sexual abuse by clergy members and for claims to be investigated without interference from bishops overseeing priests accused of sex abuse. They said it would involve more church members who were not clergy but had expertise in law enforcement or psychology.
Nick Ingala, a spokesman for Voice of the Faithful, a group formed to promote parishioners' voices after the abuse scandal surfaced, said it was heartening that bishops wanted to set up an independent review process but he expressed scepticism that it would be successful.
"I don't know how they are going to work that out," Ingala said in a telephone interview. "I'm always hesitant to give 100 percent credence to any plan the bishops put forth based upon experiences in the past."
The Pennsylvania grand jury report was the latest revelation in a scandal that erupted onto the global stage in 2002, when the Boston Globe newspaper reported that for decades, priests had sexually assaulted minors while church leaders covered up their crimes.
Similar reports have emerged in Europe, Australia and Chile, prompting lawsuits and investigations, sending dioceses into bankruptcy and undercutting the moral authority of the leadership of the Catholic Church, which has some 1.2 billion members around the world.