VATICAN CITY (CBSNewYork/AP) -- Pope Francis asked for forgiveness Friday from people who were sexually abused by priests and vowed that there will be no going back in the church's fight to protect children.
Francis made the off-the-cuff remarks after coming under criticism from victims' advocacy groups for a perceived lack of attention to the problem and ongoing demands that he sanction bishops who covered up for pedophiles.
Pope Francis Asks For Forgiveness For Sex Abuse By Priests
In his remarks to members of the International Catholic Child Bureau, a French Catholic network of organizations that protects children's rights, Francis said he felt "called to take it upon myself'' and "ask forgiveness'' for the evil that some priests had committed against children.
"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," Francis said.
"The church is aware of this damage,'' he was quoted as saying by Vatican Radio. "We don't want to take a step back in dealing with this problem and the sanctions that must be imposed. On the contrary, I think we must be even stronger! You don't play around with the lives of children.''
Many Catholics were reacting to the news Friday morning outside St. Patrick's Cathedral.
"I think he's very open, I would say liberal in his opinions, and that's something that frees a lot of Catholics, I think," one man told CBS 2's Tony Aiello.
"He's a very compassionate pope and is wanting earnestly to mend those things that have been hurt," Carol Seifert said.
"As a Catholic, I think it is great that there is a leader of the church who is able to make such decisions," Eugene Lambert added.
Francis has won wide acclaim in his first year as pope -- except from advocates for victims of priest sex abuse.
Victim Miguel Hurtado said the pope missed a chance to meet with victims during his trip to Brazil last year.
"The thing is that I don't want child protection to be an act of faith. I want child protection to be based on facts, and so far Pope Francis hasn't done anything to protect the victims," Hurtado said.
Church officials say that's not true, pointing out the pope appointed Marie Collins, a sex abuse victim, to his new commission that will advise the church on the best ways to protect children.
The Vatican has said the members will draft the statutes of the commission and would look into the legal "duties and responsibilities'' of church personnel, a suggestion that they might take up the critical question of disciplining complicit bishops. Church law provides for sanctions if a bishop is negligent in carrying out his duties, but to date no bishop has been disciplined for protecting an abuser.
SNAP -- the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests -- has said it is more interested in the pope's deeds than his words.
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