Francis was speaking a day after a landmark report found that members of the Catholic clergy in France sexually abused an estimated 216,000 minors over the past seven decades and that the Church prioritized the protection of the institution over survivors who were urged to stay silent.
The number of abused minors rises to an estimated 330,000 when including victims of people who were not clergy but had other links to the Church, such as Catholic schools and youth programs.
The damning French report follows similar investigations in other countries that have dealt a blow to the reputation of the Catholic Church in recent years.
In his weekly remarks at the Vatican on Wednesday morning, the Pope expressed his shame that the Church has ignored sexual abuse victims for too long, saying that he wants the Church to be a “safe home for everyone.”
The Pope did not directly address allegations of ongoing abuse in his Wednesday comments. However, he encouraged bishops and Church leaders to “continue to make every effort to ensure that similar tragedies do not happen again.”
“I express closeness and paternal support to the priests of France in the face of this evidence,” he said, adding: “It is hard. But is it healthy.”
Francis also assured sexual abuse survivors of his prayers and said: “I wish to express my sorrow and my pain to the victims for the trauma that they have suffered and also my shame, our shame, my shame for the too long incapacity of the church to put them at the center of its attention.”
The report said that “the Catholic Church is the place where the prevalence of sexual violence is at its highest, other than in family and friend circles.” It found that children were also more likely to abused within Church settings than in state-run schools or summer camps.
Jean-Marc Sauvé, the president of the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church (CIASE) which authored the report, said Tuesday that while most of the violence happened between 1950 and 1968, it still persists today.
Abuse of minors within the Church accounts for close to 4% of all sexual violence in France, according to Sauvé.
“The problem is not behind us, it is still here,” he said.
Between 2,900 and 3,200 abusers were estimated to have worked in the French Catholic Church between 1950 and 2020, out of a total of 115,000 priests and other clerics, according to the report.
And while the Church has taken “important steps” to prevent sexual violence in recent years, the report described them as reactive and insufficient, warning that although “these acts of violence were in decline up until the early 1990s, they have since stopped decreasing.
More than half the abuses detailed in the report occurred before 1969, when the Church in France ignored abuse by people it put in power, according to Sauvé.
“This first period … is marked by absolutely total indifference of the Church towards victims. The suffering of victims, the harm (suffered by) victims, the trauma of victims, in fact, does not exist,” Sauvé told CNN.
Over 70 years, “the Church’s attitude could be summarized as one of concealment, relativization or even denial, with only a very recent recognition dating from 2015, and even then, unequally accepted by dioceses and religious institutions,” the report said.