The Vatican has expressed “shame and sorrow” in its first response to a damning report by a US grand jury on decades of sexual abuse of children by priests in Pennsylvania.
The grand jury on Wednesday (AEST) 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.
In a statement on Friday morning, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said the Catholic Church “must learn hard lessons from its past”, and that the Vatican vowed to hold abusers and enablers accountable.
The statement stressed the “need to comply” with civil law, including mandatory reporting of abuse against minors.
It also said Pope Francis understands how “these crimes can shake the faith and spirit of believers” and that he wanted to “root out this tragic horror”.
The landmark grand jury investigation found that more than 300 “predator priests” molested in excess of 1000 children in the Pennsylvania in a case of institutionalised abuse dating back to the 1950s.
The report echoed the findings of other church investigations around the country in its description of widespread sexual abuse by clergy and church officials’ concealment of the offending.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said the probe found a systematic cover-up by senior church officials in Pennsylvania and at the Vatican.
The report catalogued horrific instances of abuse, including a priest who raped a young girl in the hospital after she had her tonsils out, and another priest who was allowed to retain his position after impregnating a 17-year-old girl, forging a signature on a marriage certificate and then divorcing the girl.
“Despite some institutional reform, individual leaders of the church have largely escaped public accountability,” Mr Shapiro told a media conference.
“Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing, they hid it all,” he said.
The grand jury report said it believed the “real number” of abused children might be “in the thousands” since some records were lost and victims were afraid to come forward.
On Thursday, US Catholic 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.