Vatican City : The Vatican has expressed “shame and sorrow” over the abuse of at least 1,000 children by more than 300 Catholic priests in the US state of Pennsylvania, and has said Pope Francis is “on the side” of survivors.
“Victims should know that the pope is on their side. Those who have suffered are his priority, and the Church wants to listen to them to root out this tragic horror that destroys the lives of the innocent,” the Vatican said in a statement on Thursday.
“There are two words that can express the feelings faced with these horrible crimes: shame and sorrow,” it said.
The comments came after a devastating US grand jury report was published on Tuesday that decried a systematic cover-up by the US Catholic Church.
The Vatican statement added that the church needed to learn “hard lessons from its past, and there should be accountability for both abusers and those who permitted abuse to occur”.
A grand jury in the US state of Pennsylvania on Tuesday released the findings of the largest-ever investigation of s** abuse in the US Catholic Church, finding that 301 priests in the state had s*****ly abused minors over the past 70 years.
The two-year investigation by a grand jury into all but two Pennsylvania dioceses turned up dozens of witnesses and half a million pages of church records containing “credible allegations against over three hundred predator priests.”
More than 1,000 child victims were identifiable, but the “real number” was “in the thousands,” the grand jury estimated.
Victims were often traumatized for life, driven to drugs, alcohol and suicide, the grand jury said.
The report is thought to be the most comprehensive to date into abuse in the US church, since media reports first exposed pedophile priests in the state of Massachusetts in 2002.
But while Tuesday’s report led to charges against two priests, one of whom has pleaded guilty, the majority of those responsible are dead and the vast majority of crimes happened too long ago to prosecute, officials said.
The latest revelation of widespread child s****l abuse by US Catholic clergy has given impetus to efforts by federal and state legislators to make it easier to prosecute such cases.
Pennsylvania State Representative Mark Rozzi, 47, said Wednesday he has fought for years to give people who say they were s*****ly abused as children more time to report such crimes to police in Pennsylvania, one of 14 US states considering bills to extend the statute of limitations for such offenses.
“We’re going to get what the victims want,” Rozzi said in a telephone interview on Wednesday, a day after a grand jury found that about 300 priests had s*****ly abused about 1,000 children over the past 70 years in Pennsylvania.
“You either support victims or you support pedophiles,” Rozzi said.
The grand jury report was the latest revelation in a scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church since the media reepors in 2002 that priests had preyed on young boys and girls and that church leaders had covered it up.
Similar reports have emerged in Europe, Australia and Chile, prompting lawsuits, sending dioceses into bankruptcy and undercutting the moral authority of the leadership of the Church, which has some 1.2 billion members around the world.
A statute of limitations is a law requiring that prosecutors bring a criminal case within a certain time frame. The advocacy group Child USA said such statutes can block justice as children may not realize they were victims of sex crimes for decades.
Amy Hill, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, the bishops’ political arm in the state, declined on Wednesday to say whether bishops supported or opposed eliminating statutes of limitations.
“The time to discuss legislation will come later,” she said. “Our focus now is on improving ways that survivors and their families can recover.”
In the past, the group had spoken out against the idea. The national bishops’ conference did not respond to a request for comment.
Some 41 states have eliminated statutes of limitations for criminally prosecuting child sex abuse. Earlier this year, Michigan and Hawaii passed laws giving victims more time to report sexual assaults on children.
Pennsylvania was one of the first US states to raise the age for reporting child sexual abuse. In 2002 it lifted the age to 30 from 23 and five years later raised it to age 50.
State legislators are ready to take up Rozzi’s bill eliminating the limit, said Steve Miskin, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Representative Dave Reed. “It’s definitely something that he’s looking to bring up sooner than later,” Miskin said.
Tuesday’s report could help push through bills in states from California to New Hampshire that would relax the limits for criminal or civil action on s****l abuse of children, said Marci Hamilton, chief executive of the advocacy group Child USA.
S****l abuse of children extends far beyond the Catholic Church, with teachers and sports coaches also facing accusations.
Given that child abusers in positions of power can continue to abuse children for decades, making it easier to prosecute them could prevent future abuse if abusers are imprisoned or lose their positions, Hamilton said in a telephone interview.
“What we want to do is to find out who the hidden child predators are,” said Hamilton, who is also a professor of religion and law at the University of Pennsylvania.
Costs related to such cases have taken a heavy toll on church coffers, reaching nearly $600 million since July 2013, according to a May report by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
U.S. church leaders have said that they have implemented extensive new measures to prevent the s****l abuse of children by clergy.