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"I feel called to take responsibility for all the evil some priests – large in number, but not in proportion to the total – have committed and to ask forgiveness for the damage they've done with the sexual abuse of children," Pope Francis said.
"The Church is aware of this damage," and is committed to strengthening child protection programmes and punishing offenders, he told members of the International Catholic Child Bureau during a meeting today at the Vatican.
The remarks appeared to be the Pope's first apology for the sex abuse scandal, following earlier statements affirming the Vatican's work investigating and punishing perpetrators, and encouraging bishops to support abuse victims. The Pope also has said the church deserves to be forced to make monetary settlements to victims.
In December, Pope Francis established a Vatican commission to promote improved child protections policies throughout the Church.
Meeting with leaders of the International Catholic Child Bureau, an organisation based in France and dedicated to defending children's rights, Pope Francis said it was hard to believe "men of the Church" would commit such horrors.
"We don't want to take a step backward in dealing with this problem and with the sanctions that must be imposed," the Pope said. "On the contrary, I believe we must be very strong. You don't play with children's lives!"
Pope Francis also spoke about the importance of defending children's right "to grow in a family with a mother and father able to create a healthy environment for their growth and affective maturity," which includes "maturing in relationship to the masculinity and femininity of a father and a mother."
Parents have a right to determine the appropriate "moral and religious education" of their children, he said, and should not be subject to school curriculums that are thinly veiled courses of indoctrination into whatever ideology is strongest at the moment.
The pope said he wonders sometimes whether parents are "sending a child to school or to a re-education camp" like those run by dictatorial governments.
Obviously, he said, children need help in responding to the problems and challenges contemporary culture and the media raise. Young people can't be kept in "glass jars," but must be given the values that will help them evaluate what cultural trends respect their dignity and freedom and the dignity and freedom of others.
Below is a translation of the Pope's words, courtesy of Vatican Radio:
I thank you for this meeting. I appreciate your efforts on behalf of children: it is a concrete and current expression of the predilection that the Lord Jesus has for them.
We can say that the BICE was born of the motherhood of the Church. In fact, it originates from Pope Pius XII's intervention in defence of children in the aftermath of World War II. Since then, this organisation has always been committed to promoting the protection of children's rights, and to contributing to the 1989 UN Convention. And in this his work it constantly collaborates with the Holy See offices of the in New York, in Strasbourg and especially Geneva .
[moving away from script speech]… I feel compelled to personally take on all the evil which some priests, quite a few in number, obviously not compared to the number of all the priests, to personally ask for forgiveness for the damage they have done for having sexually abused children. The Church is aware of this damage, it is personal, moral damage carried out by men of the Church, and we will not take one step backward with regards to how we will deal with this problem, and the sanctions that must be imposed. On the contrary, we have to be even stronger. Because you cannot interfere with children...
In our days, it is important to carry out the projects against slave - labour, against the recruitment of child soldiers and all forms of violence against children. On a positive note, we must reaffirm the right of children to grow up in a family with a father and a mother capable of creating a suitable environment for the child’s development and emotional maturity.
At the same time, this implies supporting the right of parents to decide the moral and religious education of their children. And in this regard I would like to express my rejection of any kind of educational experimentation with children. We cannot experiment with children and young people. The horrors of the manipulation of education that we experienced in the great genocidal dictatorships of the twentieth century have not disappeared; they have retained a current relevance under various guises and proposals and, with the pretence of modernity, push children and young people to walk on the dictatorial path of "only one form of thought".
[moving away from script speech] A week ago a great teacher said to me … "with these education projects I don’t know if we’re sending the kids to school or a re-education camp" …
Working for human rights presupposes the aim of fostering anthropological formation, of being well prepared on the reality of the human person, and knowing how to respond to the problems and challenges posed by contemporary culture and widespread mentality propagated by the mass media.
[moving away from script speech] Obviously this does not mean we should cover them with forms of protection that are superseded today because they belong to a past culture … Not this, this is no good … we should propose the positive values of the human person the new culture…
For you, this means offering your managers and operators continuing formation on the anthropology of the child, because that is where the rights and obligations have their foundation . It is upon this that the formation of educational projects rest.
[moving away from script speech] These projects obviously must progress, mature and accommodate itself to the signs of the times always remember human identity and freedom of conscience …
Thank you again. I wish you a Buon lavoro.