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Pope tells clergy: Never try to cover up child abuse

Pope Francis poses with Kiribati's President Anote Tong during a private audience in the pontiff's library at the Vatican February 5, 2015. REUTERS/Andrew Medichini/Pool

Vatican City: Pope Francis has sent Catholic clergy a powerful reminder of their duty to stamp out sexual abuse of children by priests, warning that they must never let a fear of scandal lead to cover-ups.

In a strongly-worded letter to the heads of national bishops' conferences and religious orders, the pope demanded "close and complete" cooperation with a new child protection watchdog he has established at the Vatican.

"Families need to know that the Church is making every effort to protect their children," he said.

The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors has been given a brief to drive reform on an issue that has severely damaged the Church's authority and reputation around the world.

Headed by American cardinal Sean O'Malley, it includes clerics and lay people, including two victims of paedophile priests, Ireland's Marie Collins and Peter Sanders from Britain.

The full commission meets for the first time in Rome Friday.

In his letter published Thursday, the pope said families needed to know they could turn to the Church in confidence.

"Consequently, priority must not be given to any other kind of concern, whatever its nature, such as the desire to avoid scandal, since there is absolutely no place in ministry for those who abuse minors."

Francis's letter follows the announcement last month that 10 priests and two Catholic lay workers in the Spanish city of Granada have been charged with the sexual abuse of altar boys between 2004 and 2007.

It is the biggest case of its kind yet in Spain, where the Church has long been accused of exactly the kind of cover-up Francis alluded to.

The Granada arrests came after a former altar boy, now 25, wrote to Francis to say he had been molested by priests from the age of seven to 18.

The pope called the man back and told him to go straight to his bishop, to whom the pontiff wrote with orders to open an investigation.

"How did I receive this news?" the pope said of the episode in November. "With great pain, very great pain, but the truth is the truth and we should not hide it."

The Argentinian pontiff also used Thursday's letter to remind bishops that the safety of minors and vulnerable adults in their dioceses is their responsibility.

They had to ensure Vatican instructions on how to handle sexual abuse cases were implemented, and procedures put in place to ensure future compliance.

The Church must also embrace victims.

"Pastors and those in charge of religious communities should be available to meet with victims and their loved ones: such meetings are valuable opportunities for listening to those who have greatly suffered and for asking their forgiveness," the pontiff wrote.

Francis's public stance on paedophile priests has helped the Church undo some of the huge damage it suffered in the 1990s and 2000s as the scale of clerical abuse began to become apparent.

But while high-profile figures such as Collins and Sanders have opted to work with him, other victims continue to maintain the Church is still protecting paedophiles within its ranks.

Mary Caplan, a spokeswoman for U.S.-based survivors network SNAP, said the new commission needs to take concrete steps such as naming ever paedophile priest the Vatican is aware of.

"Dr Martin Luther King, Jr said 'The time is always right to do what is right,' and what is right in Rome this week isn't tweaking church policies that sound good on paper but are routinely ignored by selfish bishops," Kaplan said.

"What's right in Rome this week is for this panel to actually do something that protects kids today."

 

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