Francis acknowledged that the church in the past had failed to treat the problem seriously, blaming leaders who out of inexperience or short-sightedness acted "irresponsibly" by refusing to believe victims. But he vowed that going forward the church would "never again" cover up or dismiss cases.
"Let it be clear that before these abominations the church will spare no effort to do all that is necessary to bring to justice whosoever has committed such crimes," he said. Francis urged victims to come forward, thanked the media for giving them voice and issued a stark warning to abusers: "Convert and hand yourself over to human justice, and prepare for divine justice."
Francis' remarks capped a dreadful year for the Catholic Church, one that began with his own botched handling of a sprawling sex abuse scandal in Chile and ended with the U.S. hierarchy in a free-fall of credibility as state prosecutors began uncovering decades of cover-up.
Francis has summoned church leaders from around the globe for a February abuse prevention summit, in an indication that he has come to realize that the problem is far greater and far more global than he had understood at the start of his pontificate.
Francis' blanket demand that abusers turn themselves in to face "human justice" was significant, and echoed his previous demands for mafia bosses and corrupt politicians to convert. Vatican guidelines currently only call for bishops to report priestly abusers to police in those countries where civil law requires it — a technicality that survivors and their advocates have long blasted as a convenient dodge to the church's moral obligation to protect children regardless of what civil law requires.
Survivors and their advocates, however, found Francis' words hollow, noting that just this week the chief prosecutor in the U.S. state of Illinois accused church officials there of hiding the names of around 500 priests accused of abuse.
"While refusing to reveal the name of one cleric who committed or concealed child sex crimes, Francis gives yet another promise about ending cover ups," said David Clohessy, former director of the U.S.-based survivor group SNAP. "If he's serious, Francis could show it by suspending all Illinois bishops until they 'come clean' or the attorney general's investigation clears them of wrongdoing."
Anne Barrett Doyle of the online resource BishopAccountability said it was fantasy to think that criminals will suddenly turn themselves in, when the Vatican itself has blocked bishops from adopting mandatory reporting norms, such as in Ireland in the 1990s.
"He minimizes and mischaracterizes the protection of abusers by church leaders, chalking it up to lack of training or awareness, rather than a deliberate choice to conceal and deceive," she said, adding that his claim that the cover-up was a thing of the past is also wrong since it is ongoing.
Francis warned the Vatican bureaucrats who run the 1.2 billion-strong church that the scandal now undermines the credibility of the entire Catholic enterprise and prayed for help so that the Church can discern true cases from false ones, and accusations from slander.
"This is no easy task, since the guilty are capable of skillfully covering their tracks," he said, adding that abusers also choose their victims carefully, finding those who will stay silent and live in "fear of shame and the terror of rejection."
It was perhaps a veiled reference to ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the disgraced retired archbishop of Washington who is now facing a canonical trial on allegations he groped a teenage altar boy in the 1970s.
The McCarrick revelations have fueled the crisis in confidence in the U.S. and Vatican hierarchy since it was apparently an open secret that he slept with seminarians but nevertheless was allowed to rise up the church ranks.
Francis' reference to the difficulty in distinguishing allegation from slander perhaps related to his own failure to believe Chilean victims of a notorious predator priest. During Francis' disastrous trip to Chile in January, he dismissed survivors' allegations of cover-up as "slander," sparking outrage in Chile and beyond. Francis eventually did an about-face, apologized to the victims and acknowledged he had made "grave errors in judgment."
Going forward, he urged those who have been victims of sexual abuse, abuse of power and abuse of conscience to speak out. "The greater scandal in this matter is that of cloaking the truth," he said. "I myself would like to give heartfelt thanks to those media professionals who were honest and objective and sought to unmask these predators and to make their victims' voices heard," he said.
The cardinals and bishops of the Curia listened attentively, including the dean of the College of Cardinals, Angelo Sodano, who has long been blamed for the Vatican's refusal to acknowledge the depth of the problem during the quarter-century pontificate of St. John Paul II.
Sodano, who once dismissed media reports of abuse as "petty gossip," made no mention of the scandal. In introductory remarks Friday to the pope, he thanked Francis for his pastoral visits in Rome and around the world, for having canonized Pope Paul VI and for having issued a new teaching document.
In previous years, Francis has used his Christmas greetings to issue blistering criticisms of the failings of the Curia, accusing Vatican bureaucrats of suffering from "spiritual Alzheimer's" and taking part in the "terrorism of gossip."
His remarks this year were more global, noting that all around there are priests who "without batting an eye" are ready to betray all that the church stands for and enter into a "web of corruption" by abusing those in their care.
"Often behind their boundless amiability, impeccable activity and angelic faces, they shamelessly conceal a vicious wolf ready to devour innocent souls," he said.