Pope Francis on Thursday acknowledged the Catholic Church was "a bit late" in realizing the damage done by priests who rape and molest children, and said that the decades-long practice of moving pedophiles around rather than sanctioning them was to blame.
Francis met Thursday for the first time with his sex abuse advisory commission, a group of outside experts named in 2014 to advise him and the Catholic Church on best practices to keep pedophiles out of the priesthood and to protect children.
Commission members briefed him on their work and made a series of proposals that, if accepted, would mark a major turnabout in the way the church handles abuse cases.
One recommendation is for sex abuse cases to be exempted from church's norms requiring "pontifical secret." Commissioners proposed that victims be guaranteed a "minimum right to information" as their claims are processed in the normally secrecy-filled church process. They also proposed that the 20-year statute of limitations on abuse accusations be lifted.
In addition, the commission said it was discussing the problem of when church law "impedes the reporting of suspected child abuse to civil authorities."
The Vatican has long insisted that the inviolability of the seal of confession prevents clergy who might learn about abuse through the sacramental practice as an impediment to reporting crimes to law enforcement. Recently, however, Australia's royal commission has called for clergy to face criminal charges if they learn of abuse in confession and fail to report it.
In his remarks, Francis thanked the members for their work and acknowledged they had had a difficult job going "against the current" in making the church and Vatican aware of the problem and respond to it.
In off-the-cuff remarks, he admitted that the church's response to the scandal was slow. Indeed, the Vatican for decades turned a blind eye to the problem and local bishops, rather than defrocking abusers, instead moved them from parish to parish, allowing them to abuse anew.
Part of the problem was that under the papacy of St. John Paul II, the Vatican was reluctant to defrock young priests, even if they were abusers, and sought to avoid scandal at all costs.
"The consciousness of the church arrived a bit late, and when the consciousness arrives late, the means to resolve the problem arrive late," Francis said. "Perhaps the old practice of moving people around, and not confronting the problem, kept consciences asleep."
Francis also addressed the way the Vatican was handling appeals of canonical sentences, saying he wanted to add more diocesan bishops to the appeals commission that is currently dominated by canon lawyers. He said lawyers "tend to want to lower sentences" and that he wanted diocesan bishops with experience of the problem in the field to have a say.
"I decided to balance out this commission and also say that if abuse of a minor is proven, it's sufficient and there's no need for recourse. If there is proof, period. It's definitive. Why? Not because of revulsion, but simply because the person who did this, man or woman, is sick. It's a sickness."
Francis acknowledged he had a learning curve about the clergy abuse issue, admitting that he once opted to impose a more lenient sentence on a priest who subsequently reoffended a reference to the case of the Italian priest, the Rev. Mauro Inzoli.
"I was new and I didn't understand these things well, and before two choices I chose the more benevolent one," he said. "It was the only time I did it, and never again."
In its three years, the sex abuse commission has held educational workshops in dioceses around the world, but has faced such stiff resistance to some of its proposals at the Vatican that its most prominent member, Irish abuse survivor Marie Collins, resigned in frustration in March.
The commission's statutes and membership are up for review, and it remains to be seen if survivors of abuse will be included in the new membership roster.
Commission member Bill Kilgallon told the pope that the group was proposing an "international survivor advisory panel" and an international group of speakers, to help inform it and the church about the experiences of abuse victims.