Pope Francis has asked for forgiveness for priests who molested children in some of his strongest words ever on the Roman Catholic Church's sexual abuse crisis.
The Argentine-born pontiff said the Church, which last month named a high-level group on the scandal including an abuse victim, had to take an even stronger stand than before against the scandal that has haunted it for over two decades.
"I feel compelled to personally take on all the evil that some priests - quite a few in number, [although] obviously not compared to the number of all priests - to personally ask for forgiveness for the damage they have done for having sexually abused children," he told members of the International Catholic Child Bureau on Friday in Vatican City, according to the Reuters news agency.
This may be the first time a pope has talked of sanctions against complicit bishops. But that is all it is: talk."
"The Church is aware of this ... personal, moral damage carried out by men of the Church, and we will not take one step backward with regards to how we will deal with this problem, and to the sanctions that must be imposed.
"On the contrary, we have to be even stronger. Because you cannot interfere with children," Francis said.
Victims' groups have criticised Francis in recent months for not taking a bold enough stand on the issue and for not meeting with sexual abuse victims in Italy and in a July trip to Brazil.
In particular, activists have called on the Church to discipline bishops accused of moving known child molesters from parish to parish, allowing abuse to continue.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), which advocates for child protection and urges greater transparency in the Church, said Francis' words should be received with caution.
"We beg the world's Catholics: be impressed by deeds, not words. Until the pope takes decisive action that protects kids, be sceptical and vigilant," SNAP Outreach Director Barbara Dorris said.
"This may be the first time a pope has talked of sanctions against complicit bishops. But that is all it is: talk."
The Vatican announced in December the creation of a new dedicated group to help the Church fight the abuse crisis but only named its members in late March.
The group of clerics and lay people includes Marie Collins, a survivor of abuse in Ireland in the 1960s who has campaigned for the protection of children and for justice for children who were molested.