Pope Francis condemned the "atrocities" of sexual abuse by priests and the hierarchy that covered up the crimes, apologizing to the church community Monday and demanding accountability from leaders in the future.
The letter to the world's 1.2 billion Catholics was issued less than a week after the latest in a long line of staggering abuse revelations. A withering grand jury report released by the Pennsylvania attorney general accused church leaders of protecting 301 "predator priests" in six dioceses across the state for decades at the expense of more than 1,000 victims.
"I acknowledge once more the suffering endured by many minors due to sexual abuse, the abuse of power and the abuse of conscience perpetrated by a significant number of clerics and consecrated persons," Francis said.
He said it was with "shame and repentance" that he acknowledged the church was slow in responding to the problem.
"We showed no care for the little ones," the pope wrote. "We abandoned them."
The Vatican drew criticism last week for waiting two days before condemning the activity cited in the report as "criminal and morally reprehensible." Monday's letter was the first response directly from the pope – and it drew mixed reviews.
Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of the watchdog website BishopAccountability.org, called the letter "2,000 words of recycled rhetoric" that failed to provide concrete measures to make ending abuse a priority.
"In the wake of the atrocities detailed in the Pennsylvania grand jury report, heartsick Catholics again look to the pope, yearning for a specific plan for ending the cover-up once and for all," she said. "His rambling letter today dashes this hope."
Francis this week will visit Ireland, where a string of abuse scandals has rocked the church. Prominent Irish abuse survivor Colm O'Gorman was not impressed with the pope's letter.
"He says the church must condemn the crimes of clerics who abused, and seek forgiveness for its own 'sins,'" O'Gorman tweeted. "And again, fails to acknowledge the plain fact of the Vatican’s willful cover up of those very crimes. Of their facilitation of them."
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro was more positive and said the letter "appropriately focuses" on the long-suffering survivors of abuse.
“It is my hope that, following the Holy Father’s words and teachings, church leaders in Pennsylvania will cease their denials and deflections," Shapiro said.
The abuses detailed in the grand jury report included crimes against children dating back to the 1940s. Victims were as young as 2 years old. Some victims who were raped also were beaten with whips and were shared in a "ring of predatory priests" within the Pittsburgh diocese, the report said.
A clergy abuse hotline Shapiro set up has drawn more than 300 calls since the report was released Tuesday.
"We're answering every call and following up every lead," Shapiro spokesman Joe Grace told USA TODAY.
The grand jury report was the latest development in an abuse scandal that has rocked the church. Last month, the pope accepted the resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a high-ranking Vatican official, amid claims of sexual abuse almost 40 years ago.
In May, an Australian archbishop was convicted in criminal court of covering up the sexual abuse of children by a priest. That same month, all 31 bishops in Chile offered their resignations; the pope has accepted at least five of them.
Francis wrote that lay Catholics must play a role in creating a culture that prevents abuse and protection of abusers.
"Looking back to the past, no effort to beg pardon and to seek to repair the harm done will ever be sufficient," the pope wrote. "Looking ahead to the future, no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated."
Terry McKiernan, founder of BishopAccountability.org, saw positives in the letter but said it did not go far enough.
"He is talking about crimes, not sins, which is important," McKiernan said. But he added that bishops in Pennsylvania have lobbied hard against changing statute of limitation laws that make it difficult for survivors to sue.
"The pope's men on the ground (bishops) have spent millions fighting against change," McKiernan said. "If he would support it, obviously the deal would be done."
Contributing: Candy Woodall, York Daily Record