Pope Francis calls for action on clerical sex abuse

The BBC's Alan Johnson: "This problem is one of the most difficult he will face in his entire period in office"

Pope Francis has called for "decisive action" in the fight against sex abuse of minors by priests.

He told Bishop Gerhard Mueller, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith - the Vatican watchdog that deals with sex abuse cases - to ensure that perpetrators were punished.

It was the Argentine Pope's first public statement on clerical sex abuse.

A leading sex abuse survivors' group has responded with scepticism, saying "actions speak louder than words".

The new Pope was elected last month, replacing Pope Benedict, who became the first pope in 600 years to resign.

When first elected, Benedict XVI promised to rid his Church of the "filth" of clerical sex abuse, but critics accused him of covering up abuse in the past and failing to protect children from paedophile priests.

Victims of sex abuse by clergy had called for a strong response from the new pontiff to the crisis that has rocked the Church.

'Old vague pledges'


Pope Francis has inherited a major scandal which demands continuing decisive action. Archbishop Mueller, the German cleric in charge of the Vatican department which investigates cases of sexual abuse - and decides whether paedophile priests are to be defrocked - has had several meetings with Pope Francis since his recent election.

Only last month one American diocese - Green Bay, Wisconsin - paid $700,000 (£460,000) to two brothers who had been sexually abused by a Catholic priest decades ago. Several American Catholic dioceses have been forced to declare bankruptcy as a result of making huge payouts to victims.

Dr Rebecca Rist, a papal historian at Reading University, said: "The papacy has always taken a strong line on the importance of the purity of life of its clergy. In the 11th Century, the medieval papacy took stringent measures against the abuses of 'simony' - the buying and selling of ecclesiastical office - and 'nicolaism' - clerical concubinage.

"Pope Francis is signalling that he regards clerical sexual abuse as the modern day scourge of the Church."

In his remarks on Friday, Pope Francis said combating the crisis - which has mired the Church in scandal from the US, Ireland and Europe to Australia - was important for the credibility of the Church.

A Vatican statement said the Pope had urged Bishop Mueller to "act decisively as far as cases of sexual abuse are concerned, promoting, above all, measures to protect minors, help for those who have suffered such violence in the past (and) the necessary procedures against those who are guilty".

In 2011, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith called on bishops' conferences around the world to submit guidelines for helping victims; protecting children; selecting and training priests and other Church workers; dealing with accused priests; and collaborating with local authorities.

Three-quarters of the 112 bishops' conferences have sent in such guidelines, with most of those yet to respond coming from Africa, the Vatican says.

The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) responded to the statement by calling for actions rather than words.

"We can't confuse words with actions," SNAP Outreach Director Barbara Dorris told the BBC. "When we do, we hurt kids.

"We must insist on new tangible action that helps vulnerable children protect their bodies, not old vague pledges that help a widely-discredited institution protect its reputation."

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