Vatican City (AFP) - Pope Francis on Thursday warned Catholic clergy they must never try to cover up sexual abuse, as a new Church child protection panel prepares to meet for the first time.
In a strongly-worded letter to the heads of national bishops' conferences and religious orders, the pope demanded "close and complete" cooperation with the watchdog he has established at the Vatican.
"Families need to know that the Church is making every effort to protect their children," he said.
The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which will hold its first full meeting on Friday, has been given a brief to drive reform on an issue that has severely damaged the Church's authority and reputation around the world.
Headed by American cardinal Sean O'Malley, it includes clerics and lay people from all corners of the world, including two victims of paedophile priests, Ireland's Marie Collins and Peter Sanders from Britain.
Vatican officials say it is a sign of how, after years of hesitation, the Church is finally addressing the abuse issue seriously.
But critics such as the survivors network SNAP say it must match rhetoric with action, notably on the confidentiality surrounding paedophile priests who have been subject to internal church disciplinary proceedings and, in some cases, been allowed to resume their clerical careers.
In his letter published Thursday, the pope said families needed to know they could turn to the Church in confidence.
"Consequently, priority must not be given to any other kind of concern, whatever its nature, such as the desire to avoid scandal, since there is absolutely no place in ministry for those who abuse minors."
- 'Truth is the truth' -
Francis's letter follows the announcement last month that 10 priests and two Catholic lay workers in the Spanish city of Granada have been charged with the sexual abuse of altar boys between 2004 and 2007.
It is the biggest case of its kind yet in Spain, where the Church has long been accused of exactly the kind of cover-up Francis alluded to.
The Granada arrests came after a former altar boy, now 25, wrote to Francis to say he had been molested by priests from the age of seven to 18.
The pope called the man back personally and told him to go straight to his bishop, to whom the pontiff wrote with orders to open an investigation.
"How did I receive this news?" the pope said of the episode in November. "With great pain, very great pain, but the truth is the truth and we should not hide it."
- Embrace victims -
The Argentinian pontiff also used Thursday's letter to remind bishops that the safety of minors and vulnerable adults in their dioceses is their responsibility.
They had to ensure Vatican instructions on how to handle sexual abuse cases were implemented, and procedures put in place to ensure future compliance.
The Church must also embrace victims, Francis said.
"Pastors and those in charge of religious communities should be available to meet with victims and their loved ones: such meetings are valuable opportunities for listening to those who have greatly suffered and for asking their forgiveness," the pontiff wrote.
- 'Do something concrete' -
Francis's public stance on paedophile priests has helped the Church undo some of the huge damage it suffered in the 1990s and 2000s as the scale of clerical abuse began to become apparent.
Anecdotal evidence suggests tens of thousands of priests worldwide may have been abusers. The Vatican last year published figures showing that 3,420 cases had been dealt with by church tribunals in the previous decade.
But while high-profile figures such as Collins and Sanders have opted to work with the current pope, other victims continue to maintain the Church is still protecting paedophiles within its ranks.
Mary Caplan, a spokeswoman for the New York arm of SNAP, said the new commission needs to take concrete steps such as naming every paedophile priest the Vatican is aware of and handing over evidence from church disciplinary proceedings to secular authorities.
"Dr Martin Luther King, Jr said 'The time is always right to do what is right,' and what is right in Rome this week isn't tweaking church policies that sound good on paper but are routinely ignored by selfish bishops," Kaplan said.
"What's right in Rome this week is for this panel to actually do something that protects kids today."