Ending clergy abuse: Pope says priests must be guided by 'holy fear of God'

Pope Francis vowed to confront the Catholic Church’s clergy sex abuse scandal head-on, calling Sunday for priests to be guided by the "holy fear of God" while victims are believed and supported.

"The church will spare no effort to do all that is necessary to bring to justice whosoever has committed such crimes," Francis told a group of about 190 Catholic bishops and religious superiors he summoned to Rome. "The church will never seek to hush up or not take seriously any case.”

The sex abuse scandal has rocked the church for two decades as journalists and prosecutors have uncovered hundreds of examples of predator priests who abused children and were allowed to continue in their ministry. The scandal has prompted many American Catholics to leave the church, which counts about 70 million Americans as members.

Last week, Francis defrocked former U.S. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, 88, after Vatican officials found him guilty of sex crimes against minors and adults. McCarrick is the most senior Catholic official to be defrocked for such crimes, and church experts say that's a reflection of how slowly the church has moved in response to the scandal.

After a damning grand jury report released last summer uncovered 300 abusive priests in Pennsylvania, multiple state attorneys general have opened their own cases, and hundreds of new victims are expected to come forward across the U.S.

The Rev. James Bretzke, a theology professor at Marquette University, said the pope demands a change in clerical culture, which has focused more on protecting the church's reputation than the abuse of children by priests.

"The pope is saying this isn't just a problem for the United States or Europe or elsewhere," Bretzke told USA TODAY last week. "The problem is the clerical culture that looks to protect the institution even at the expense of individuals who have been harmed."

Speaking to senior church leaders, the pope offered an eight-point pledge Sunday to address sex abuse cases, calling for a change in the church’s defensive mentality and a vow to never again cover up cases. The pope also said the church would seek to address widespread child abuse by family members, coaches, teachers and other relatives.

"Yet we need to be clear that while gravely affecting our societies as a whole, this evil is in no way less monstrous when it takes place within the church," Francis said in a statement issued by the Vatican. "The brutality of this worldwide phenomenon becomes all the more grave and scandalous in the church, for it is utterly incompatible with her moral authority and ethical credibility."

Some critics said the pope's commitment doesn't go far enough. They said the conference covered important ground that Francis seemingly ignored.

"Pope Francis' talk today was a stunning letdown, a catastrophic misreading of the grief and outrage of the faithful," Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, a nonprofit that tracks abuse by Roman Catholic clergy, said in a statement. "If the powerful testimonies of the past week moved the needle in the right direction, the pope today moved it back."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ending clergy abuse: Pope says priests must be guided by 'holy fear of God'