08/16/2018 17:00 EDT | Updated 08/16/2018 17:25 EDT

Vatican Feels 'Shame And Sorrow' Over Abuse By Pennsylvania Priests, Spokesman Says

The Catholic Church needs to hold priests and those who covered for them accountable for sexual abuse, the Vatican said.

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“Victims should know that [Pope Francis] is on their side,” a Vatican spokesman said in a statement, which called for “accountability for both abusers and those who permitted abuse to occur.”

As Catholics in the U.S. grapple with fallout from a grand jury’s shocking report on clerical sex abuse and its cover-up in Pennsylvania, Pope Francis has pledged to hold accountable both abusers and those who protected them.

In a statement released two days after Pennsylvania published the damning report, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said the institution feels “shame and sorrow” about the findings.

“The abuses described in the report are criminal and morally reprehensible,” the Vatican said in a statement obtained by Ines San Martin of Crux, an independent Catholic news website. “The Church must learn hard lessons from its past, and there should be accountability for both abusers and those who permitted abuse to occur.”

Since Tuesday, Francis has been facing pressure to speak up about the horrific crimes documented in the 884-page report ― the largest, most comprehensive investigation of sex abuse in the church by a U.S. state. During a two-year investigation, the grand jury identified over 300 “predator priests” in six Pennsylvania dioceses: Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton. The jurors said they identified more than 1,000 victims and suspected that the real number could be much higher. 

After sifting through 70 years of previously hidden church documents, jurors said that senior church leaders in these dioceses and even at the Vatican were complicit in covering up the abuse. Church officials, including former bishops, brushed aside victims’ complaints and instead sought to protect the church’s reputation, the grand jury wrote. 

“Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all,” the report reads. “For decades. Monsignors, auxiliary bishops, bishops, archbishops, cardinals have mostly been protected; many, including some named in this report, have been promoted.”

The Vatican said it treated the work of the grand jury “with great seriousness.” The Holy See emphasized that most of the alleged crimes discussed in the report are about abuses that occurred before the early 2000s ― which it took as a sign that the reforms the church put in place after the scandal broke in 2002 “drastically reduced” clergy child abuse.  

The statement encouraged Catholic leaders to comply with civil laws about child sexual abuse, “including mandatory child abuse reporting requirements.”

Burke underscored that Francis understands how much these crimes can “shake the faith and the spirit of believers.” 

“Victims should know that the Pope is on their side,” the statement read. “Those who have suffered are his priority, and the Church wants to listen to them to root out this tragic horror that destroys the lives of the innocent.”