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Vatican condemns sex abuse described in Pennsylvania grand jury report

Last Updated Aug 16, 2018 4:58 PM EDT

VATICAN CITY -- The Vatican has condemned sexual abuse described in a Pennsylvania grand jury report and said Pope Francis is on the victims' side. 

"The abuses described in the report are criminal and morally reprehensible," the Vatican said Thursday in a statement. "Those acts were betrayals of trust that robbed survivors of their dignity and their faith. The Church must learn hard lessons from its past, and there should be accountability for both abusers and those who permitted abuse to occur."

The Church expressed "shame and sorrow" while also suggesting that reforms undertaken by its leaders had sharply reduced the prevalence of clergy sex abuse since 2002. The statement said it "encourages continued reform and vigilance at all levels of the Catholic Church, to help ensure the protection of minors and vulnerable adults from harm." 

It added that the "Holy Father 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."

It said the victims are the pope's "priority" and that the Church "wants to listen to them to root out this tragic horror that destroys the lives of the innocent."

A Pennsylvania grand jury said this week that more than 300 priests abused more than 1,000 children, and likely thousands more, over seven decades.

A trove of documents containing allegations and admissions of sexual abuse were kept locked up in what the church calls its "secret archives," with the only key in the bishop's hands.

"The cover-up made it impossible to achieve justice for the victims," said Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

He laid out a pattern of consistent, decadeslong cover-up across six dioceses.

The files contained a pattern of strategies that were practically a playbook for concealing the truth. Some of the tactics for church recordkeeping included euphemisms, like saying "inappropriate contact" or "boundary issues" instead of "rape."

Even if a priest was abusing children, they were allowed to keep their housing and living expenses. Above all, the church was told not to call the police and instead handle claims like a personnel matter.

As church officials protected predator priests, careers continued to rise.

"Bishop Wuerl is now Cardinal Wuerl," said Shapiro.

Washington, D.C., archbishop, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, presided over 32 accused priests during his 18 years at the Pittsburgh diocese. He sat down with CBS News the night before the report's release.

"During my tenure, we acted… very appropriately with many times removal from ministry, totally and completely," he said.

But according to the grand jury, in 1991, Wuerl reassigned an accused priest, Ernest Paone, to the Reno diocese. In 1995, he returned George Zirwas, a member of a pedophile community, according to the attorney general's office, to the ministry.

On Wednesday, Wuerl celebrated Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington and referred to "the horror of child sexual abuse" detailed in the grand jury report.

"The pain, the suffering is something that we need to accept responsibility for," he said. "While we work to restore confidence in the ability of the church ... to treat this problem, we need constantly to be there for survivors."