Catholic priests who sexually abuse children are “vicious wolves” who should turn themselves into the authorities, Pope Francis said on Friday.
His remarks came at the end of a year in which he was accused of mishandling an abuse scandal in Chile and in which the Vatican’s third most senior figure, economy minister Cardinal George Pell of Australia, was put on trial in Melbourne for sexually abusing boys.
Any priest who abused a child was “a vicious wolf ready to devour innocent souls”, the Pope said in his annual address to the Curia, the Vatican’s governing body.
Survivors of clerical abuse have long accused the Pope of coming out with strong rhetoric to condemn the rape of children but of failing to take concrete steps to address the scandal.
In his address, the Pope acknowledged that the Catholic Church had hugely underestimated the phenomenon and failed to punish predatory priests and the bishops who cover up for them, often by moving them from parish to parish rather than reporting them to the police.
"It is undeniable that some in the past, out of irresponsibility, disbelief, lack of training, inexperience, or spiritual and human short-sightedness, treated many cases without the seriousness and promptness that was due," he said.
All that would change, he pledged, speaking two months before a landmark Vatican summit which will be convened in February to address the issue.
He promised to make "past mistakes opportunities for eliminating this scourge".
"To those who abuse minors I would say this: convert and hand yourself over to human justice, and prepare for divine justice," the leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Roman Catholics said.
"Let it be clear that, faced with these abominations, the Church will spare no effort to do all that is necessary to bring to justice whoever has committed such crimes.
“The Church will never seek to hush up or not take seriously any case," he said. “This must never happen again.”
Victims’ groups are deeply sceptical that the conference in February, which will see bishops from around the world gather in Rome, will produce tangible results.
But the Pope appears to recognise the enormous damage that has been done to the Catholic Church’s moral authority by years of abuse revelations from around the world, from Ireland to the US, Australia, Germany and Latin America.
Just this week, the attorney general of the state of Illinois accused Catholic dioceses of failing to release the names of at least 500 clergy accused of sexually abusing children.
And the Pope accepted the resignation of an auxiliary bishop in Los Angeles, Monsignor Alexander Salazar, following an allegation of sexual misconduct with a child in the 1990s.
Francis went out of his way to thank journalists for uncovering abuse scandals.
"I would like to give heartfelt thanks to those media professionals who were honest and objective and sought to unmask these predators and to make their victims’ voices heard,” he told the Curia.
He also launched an attack on his enemies within the Church who have attacked his papacy, either openly or anonymously through leaks.
He likened them to Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus for “thirty pieces of silver”.
The Pope has come under sustained attack from conservatives within the Church who are bitterly opposed to the openness he has shown to formerly shunned groups, including homosexuals and remarried divorcees wanting to take communion.
He said there are, within the Church hierarchy, “those who hide behind good intentions in order to stab their brothers and sisters in the back and to sow weeds, division and bewilderment.”