The Vatican on Thursday called "criminal and morally reprehensible" the conduct of priests detailed this week in a blistering grand jury report on clergy sex abuse in Pennsylvania.
"Those acts were betrayals of trust that robbed survivors of their dignity and their faith," a papal spokesperson said in a statement released two days after the nearly 900-page report was made public. "The church must learn hard lessons from its past, and there should be accountability for both abusers and those who permitted abuse to occur."
Released in multiple languages, the statement did not quote Pope Francis directly, but said he "understands well how much these crimes can shake the faith and the spirit of believers, and reiterates the call to make every effort to create a safe environment for minors and vulnerable adults in the church and in all of society. Victims should know that the pope is on their side."
The statement represented the first public reaction to the report from Rome, and comes as the Catholic Church has reeled from a fresh wave of clergy sex-abuse cases worldwide and questions over Francis' response to them.
Five Chilean bishops have stepped down, and more have offered to join them, amid a widening scandal there about clergy sex abuse. And 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, figures prominently in the Pennsylvania grand jury report. Built during a two-year investigation by state prosecutors, it described more than 300 "predator priests" who allegedly abused more than 1,000 victims over seven decades in six of Pennsylvania's eight Roman Catholic dioceses.
The grand jury found that church leaders, including bishops, routinely and deliberately covered up the abuse, casting the victims aside in an effort to protect the church from scandal. Among the most notable clerics cited for failing to do enough was Wuerl, the bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006.
The pope's name had been invoked weeks ago in the case. When a group of unnamed clergy members mounted a legal battle to block the report's release or redact their names from it — arguing that they were denied due process or that their reputations would be unfairly harmed — Attorney General Josh Shapiro wrote to the pontiff, imploring him to encourage those clergy members to drop their appeals.
"Credible reports indicate that at least two leaders of the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania — while not directly challenging the release of this report in court — are behind these efforts to silence the victims and avoid accountability," Shapiro wrote. "Your Holiness, I respectfully request that you direct church leaders to follow the path you charted … and abandon their destructive efforts to silence the survivors."
An attorney for some of the petitioners called the letter an "inappropriate" effort to pressure his clients to back down. The Vatican did not publicly respond to Shapiro.
In a statement released after the comments from Rome on Thursday, the attorney general said: "I appreciate the validation of our work in Pennsylvania and the expression of remorse on behalf of Pope Francis. I hope that under the Holy Father's leadership, the church will now embrace and support the grand jury's recommendations."
The Vatican remarks noted that many of the instances of abuse detailed in the report are decades old, which spokesman Greg Burke said was a testament to reforms made by the church after what was to become a global focus on clergy sex abuse first flared in Boston in 2002.
Late that year, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted a charter aimed at protecting children. The bishops have since revised it multiple times, and cited those improvements this week in the fallout of the Pennsylvania investigation.
"We pledge to maintain transparency and to provide for the permanent removal of offenders from ministry, and to maintain safe environments for everyone," said the statement signed by the conference's president, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of the Galveston-Houston Archdiocese, who previously held posts in the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
"As a body of bishops, we are shamed by and sorry for the sins and omissions by Catholic priests and Catholic bishops," DiNardo wrote.
The grand jury's findings also have drawn criticism. Some of the priests mentioned in the report have challenged their accuracy. The Catholic League, a New York-based advocacy group, issued an 11-page report Thursday attacking the Pennsylvania investigation and its findings.
And in Washington, a spokesman for Wuerl, who was cited more than 200 times in the report, sought to counter its depiction of him. His spokesperson, Ed McFadden, also specifically targeted Shapiro, arguing on Tuesday that the attorney general "was more concerned with getting this report out than getting it right."
In its aftermath, the archdiocese created a website, TheWuerlRecord.com. McFadden said the site was intended to help inform journalists who do not typically cover the Catholic Church or the cardinal but were writing about the report.
But it was quickly criticized by some who thought it was inappropriate or read like a script from a politician. McFadden took the website down late Wednesday, the day before the Vatican statement.