Pope Francis voiced regret Wednesday that he and the Catholic Church had not done more to protect hundreds of thousands of children who were sexually abused by church clergy and lay members in France over several decades.

French Catholic clergy sexually abused more than 200,000 children in the country over the past 70 years, according to an investigation by an independent commission.

The panel’s report said more than 100,000 other children were victims of abuse by church lay members such as teachers at Catholic schools. 

“There is, unfortunately, a considerable number. I would like to express to the victims my sadness and pain for the trauma that they suffered,” Francis said at his weekly public appearance at the Vatican. “It is also my shame, our shame … for the incapacity of the church for too long to put them at the center of its concerns.” 

The pope said bishops must ensure that “similar tragedies do not happen again.” 

The panel’s report, released Tuesday, said the Catholic Church covered up a “massive phenomenon” witha “veil of silence” that lasted for decades. 

“Until the early 2000s, the Catholic Church showed a profound and even cruel indifference towards the victims,” the report said. 

The commission’s report, released after a two-and-a-half-year investigation, said Catholic clergy in France sexually abused about 216,000 minors since 1950 and that more than 110,000 had been victimized by church lay members.

Jean-Marc Sauve, head of the commission that compiled the report, said at a Paris news conference that most victims were boys between the ages of 10 and 13.

Catholic bishops in France established the commission in 2018 to uncover abuses and restore confidence in the church as congregations declined. 

The probe was triggered by an increasing number of abuse claims and prosecutions of church officials worldwide. 

Archbishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, president of the Bishops’ Conference of France and among those who requested the report, expressed “shame and horror” at the findings during the news conference. 

“My wish today is to ask forgiveness from each of you,” he said. 

Along with 45 recommendations to stop child abuse by clergy, Sauve urged the church Tuesday to pay reparations to the victims of abuse. The church announced a plan last spring to provide “financial contributions” to victims.

A group of six victims’ associations said, “We expect clear and concrete responses by the church.” 

Francois Devaux, an abuse victim and founder of victims’ association La Parole Libérée, told church representatives at the report’s unveiling, “You are a disgrace to our humanity.” 

Earlier this year, the pope issued the most extensive revision to Catholic Church law in four decades, insisting that bishops act against clerics who abuse minors and vulnerable adults. 

Some information in this report was provided by Agence France-Presse, The Associated Press, and Reuters. 

 

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