ROME -- Pope Francis on Friday made his first public plea for forgiveness on behalf of priests who have abused children.
"I feel compelled to personally take on all the evil which some priests -- quite a few in number, [although] obviously not compared to the number of all priests -- to personally ask for forgiveness for the damage they have done for having sexually abused children," the pope said in a strongly worded, unscripted speech.
The apology marked a change of tone by the pope, who has been criticized for paying scant attention to the clerical sex-abuse scandal rocking the Roman Catholic Church. Only last month Francis angered many victims groups by lashing back at a United Nations panel that accused senior prelates of covering up for abusive priests.
But in his meeting Friday at the Vatican with members of the International Catholic Child Bureau, a French coalition of child-protection organizations, the pontiff made his strongest sign of contrition for the scandal, which has undermined the church's moral authority in North America and Europe.
"The church is aware of this damage," Francis said, according to Vatican Radio. "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."
Francis' statement echoed the 2010 apology made to victims of abusive priests in Ireland by his predecessor, Benedict XVI.
It also follows the Vatican's decision late last month to name a former abuse victim, Irish campaigner Marie Collins, to a new Vatican commission to study the issue. The move helped defuse some of the anger that greeted Francis' remarks defending the Vatican from a U.N. panel that criticized the church's response to the abuse crisis.
"The Catholic Church is possibly the only public institution to have acted with transparency and responsibility," he said in a newspaper interview in early March. "No one else has done more. Yet the church is the only one to be attacked."
The Vatican's new commission is expected to advise the church on the best ways to protect children. Collins has said her top priority is to punish bishops who have covered up for abusive priests.