Pope Francis on Friday asked for forgiveness for priests who molested children in some of his strongest words ever on the Roman Catholic Church's sexual abuse crisis.
"I feel compelled to personally take on all the evil which some priests, quite a few in number, obviously not compared to the number of all the priests, to personally ask for forgiveness for the damage they have done for having sexually abused children," he told members of a children's rights group, the International Catholic Child Bureau, according to Vatican Radio.
Accusations that Francis has not taken a strong enough stand against clerical sexual abuse tarnished the overwhelmingly positive reviews he received on reaching the first anniversary of his election to the papacy last month.
Francis has called sexual abuse of children "the shame of the Church" and has vowed to continue procedures put in place by his predecessor, Benedict XVI.
In the address published on Vatican Radio Friday, Pope Francis pledged the church "will not take one step backward with regards to how we will deal with this problem, and the sanctions that must be imposed."
But he seemed to pay less attention to abuse than to other reforms. Defensive testimony by Vatican officials before the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child in January set off a wave of criticism that he was not bold enough on the issue.
Francis also appeared to take on same-sex parenting Friday, saying children have a right to grow up in a home "with a father and a mother" who create "a suitable environment for the child's development and emotional maturity."
The pope has garnered praise from the international lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community for his softer tone on gays. On a July visit to Brazil, the pope said that, "If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?"
In mid-December, The Advocate, the U.S.'s oldest queer publication, dubbed Francis "person of the year." Others have observed that Francis' comments on sexuality represent no formidable change in church doctrine.
Al Jazeera and wire services