Pope Francis made his first public plea for forgiveness yesterday for the "evil" committed by priests who molested children, using some of his strongest words yet on the Catholic Church's sexual abuse crisis.
The pontiff said the church - which last month named a high-level group on the scandal, including an abuse victim - had to take an stronger stand on an issue that has haunted it for more than two decades.
"I feel compelled to personally take on all the evil that some priests - quite a few in number, although obviously not compared to the number of all priests - to personally ask for forgiveness for the damage they have done for having sexually abused children," he told members of the International Catholic Child Bureau.
"The church is aware of this personal, moral damage carried out by men of the church, and we will not take one step backwards with regards to how we will deal with this problem, and to the sanctions that must be imposed.
"On the contrary, we have to be even stronger. Because you cannot interfere with children," the Pope said in his unscripted comments to the rights body.
The comments, originally in Spanish, were translated by the Vatican Radio news service.
The Pope did not say if "sanctions" would be church-enforced or involve civil justice.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (Snap), which advocates for child protection, yesterday said the pontiff's words should be received with caution.
"We beg the world's Catholics: be impressed by deeds, not words. Until the Pope takes decisive action that protects kids, be sceptical and vigilant," SNAP director Barbara Dorris said.
"This may be the first time a Pope has talked of sanctions against complicit bishops. But that is all it is: talk."