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As Pope Francis pledges reform, AG Josh Shapiro urges Pa. church leaders to stop ‘denials and deflections’ on clergy sex abuse

While he did not outline any concrete steps that the Vatican would take, Pope Francis begged forgiveness for the suffering endured by victims and called for prayer and penitence to atone for the "sins" of the wider church.

Pope Francis wrote a letter to all Catholics in the wake of last week's grand jury report in Pennsylvania.
Pope Francis wrote a letter to all Catholics in the wake of last week's grand jury report in Pennsylvania.Read moreAndrew Medichini / AP

Pope Francis on Monday condemned the decades of child sex abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests in Pennsylvania and efforts to cover it up as "atrocities," and vowed to better respond to such crimes in the future.

But he offered no indication — in a nearly 2,000-word letter translated into seven languages and released by the Vatican — of any concrete measures he would take to identify or punish complicit bishops.

Instead, Francis begged forgiveness for victims' suffering, and called for prayer and penitence to atone for the "sins" of the wider church. The pope blamed the traditional Catholic adherence to hierarchical decision-making for its failure to sufficiently address past clergy abuse and insisted that lay Catholics worldwide must be a part of reforming its approach.

"We acknowledge as an ecclesiastical community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner realizing the magnitude and gravity of the damage done to so many lives," he wrote. "We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them."

>> READ MORE: Pope Francis' letter responding to the Pa. clergy sex abuse grand jury report

The message – released just days before a scheduled papal visit to Ireland, a country marred by clergy sex abuse – constituted Francis' most frank comments to date on the latest wave of abuse allegations that have eroded trust in Catholic congregations worldwide, and prompted calls both from inside and outside the church for greater accountability.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro praised the pope's message Monday, and called on church leaders statewide to "cease their denials and deflections" and support meaningful reform.

Last week, Shapiro's office unveiled a blistering grand jury report accusing 301 priests in the state of sexual misconduct involving more than 1,000 victims and condemning several within Pennsylvania's church hierarchy – including some bishops – of protecting predators over seven decades.

Responding to that report Monday, Francis wrote: "The heart-wrenching pain of these victims, which cries out to heaven, was long ignored, kept quiet or silenced. But their outcry was more powerful than all the measures meant to silence it, or sought even to resolve it by decisions that increased its gravity by falling into complicity."

His words echoed messages delivered from pulpits across the state.

At weekend Masses, Catholic leaders in the six dioceses spotlighted in the grand jury's findings – Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Allentown, Scranton, Greensburg, and Erie – sought to denounce the behavior detailed in the report while assuaging feelings of anger, mistrust and confusion within their congregations.

>> READ MORE: Area Catholics on Pa. grand jury report: 'It's sad … heartbreaking"

In Pittsburgh, where grand jurors accused 99 priests of sexual misconduct, Bishop David Zubik sought to refocus attention on the reforms his diocese has made since the worldwide abuse scandal began in Boston 16 years ago.

"I, too, feel that rage," he said in a Sunday interview on ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos. But "the church of Pittsburgh today is not the church that's described in the grand jury report."

Parishes in the Scranton Diocese played a video message from Bishop Joseph Bambera, who apologized for "misguided and inappropriate decisions by church leaders" in dealing with the 59 priests the grand jury accused there.

The Philadelphia Archdiocese was not included in last week's grand jury report because a landmark 2005 effort by a separate panel had already delved into its history of mishandling clergy sex abuse.

But officials here chose Sunday to announce that two priests – placed on administrative leave months ago amid accusations of misconduct – had been deemed "not suitable for ministry" after investigations by an internal church review board.

Meanwhile, agents in the state Attorney General's Office continued to field a surge of new calls to its clergy sex-abuse hotline from accusers inspired to come forward by the grand jury's findings.

Shapiro had directly appealed to Francis earlier in the investigation, when several clergy members named in the report had sued to block its release.

In his statement Monday, the attorney general reiterated his calls for church leaders to back a series of legislative reforms suggested by the grand jury – including eliminating the criminal statute of limitations on sex crimes and loosening state laws to allow childhood victims to sue their abusers and others decades after the assault.

Similar measures have previously died at the state Capitol under an intense lobbying push by the church and the insurance industry, who argue that loosening time restrictions on abuse lawsuits could lead to a flood of litigation and sink whole dioceses under the resulting financial penalties.

"It is my hope that, following the Holy Father's words and teachings, church leaders in Pennsylvania will cease their denials and deflections, and now fully support the grand jury's recommendations so that survivors have the opportunity to obtain justice and ensure this type of widespread abuse and cover-up never happens again," Shapiro said.

Francis obliquely acknowledged similar reform efforts – from both within and outside the church – in his letter Monday.

"We have delayed in applying these actions and sanctions that are so necessary," he wrote, "yet I am confident that they will help to guarantee a greater culture of care in the present and future."

Still, he did not directly mention any of other flash points of the church abuse scandal that have recently erupted around the globe.

Last month, the pontiff accepted the resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, former archbishop of Washington, who remained a top church leader despite claims that he had preyed on priests or seminarians.

McCarrick's successor – Cardinal Donald Wuerl, former bishop of Pittsburgh – figured prominently in the Pennsylvania report, which accused him for failing to do enough to respond to predatory priests.

Meanwhile, in Australia and Chile, a number of top church officials have stepped down in recent months as clergy abuse scandals widen there.

Francis' own response to the crisis has previously drawn rebuke from abuse victims and their advocates – most notably in January when he dismissed victims' accusations of a cover-up by a Chilean bishop as slander and "calumny."

In 2016, the pope scrapped a proposal for a Vatican tribunal to prosecute negligent bishops. And several cardinals accused of covering up for pedophile priests remain his trusted advisers.

Still, in his letter Monday, the pope adopted a harsher tone than he had in previous remarks, using words like atrocities and crimes to describe the misdeeds of predatory priests and their enablers.

A statement the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued in response to the grand jury report last week referred to them simply as "sins and omissions."

"We have realized that these wounds never disappear, and that they require us to forcefully condemn these atrocities and join forces in uprooting this culture of death," Francis wrote. "These wounds never go away."