Rome — Pope Francis railed against the sexual abuse of children in a weekly address in St. Peter's Square Sunday, calling any such abuse a "tragedy" and saying the church cannot tolerate the matter and "must severely punish the abusers."
Greeting members of an Italian association that has worked to raise awareness against pedophilia and to report sexual abuse crimes, who were present in the Square for the recitation of the Regina Coeli prayer, the pontiff thanked them for their work before departing from his prepared text.
"This is a tragedy," said Francis off the cuff, his voice raised and his arm extended from the window of the Vatican's apostolic palace above the Square. "We must not tolerate the abuse of minors. We must defend minors. And we must severely punish the abusers."
The Catholic church around the world has been embroiled in scandals over its handling of sexually abusive clergy for decades, with survivors, advocates, law enforcement agencies, and some local jurisdictions saying members of the hierarchy covered up crimes in order to protect the institution at the risk of children's well-being.
While Francis did not specifically mention the church or its response to abuse on Sunday, he spoke in the plural using a remarkably forceful tone.
The pontiff's remarks came in an address in which he also mentioned what he called the continuing "spiral of violence" in Syria, where a hospital in the city of Aleppo staffed by the international group Doctors Without Borders was bombed on Thursday, resulting in the death of at least 55 civilians.
The pope said he received the news with "profound sadness," saying the bombing claimed the life of children, the sick, "and those who with great sacrifice were committed to lend help to their neighbors."
"I exhort all the parties involved in the conflict to respect the cessation of hostilities and to reinforce the dialogue in progress, the only way to peace," said Francis.
Francis reflected earlier in his remarks on the Gospel reading of the day, in which Jesus warns his disciples he will have to leave them but assures them that the Holy Spirit will remain in their midst.
"We are not alone," said the pope. "Jesus in close to us, in the midst of us, within us."
"The Spirit ... acts in our lives," said Francis. "It guides us in our way of thinking, acting, distinguishing what is good and what is evil; it helps us to practice the charity of Jesus; his gift of himself for others, especially those most in need."
While Francis has established the Vatican's first pontifical commission dedicated specifically to the protection of minors in the church, he has come under some criticism for not speaking out on the subject more strongly and not acting more forcefully against abusers and those who have covered up abuse.
Although the Vatican announced last June that the pope had approved an outline for a new system of accountability for bishops who do not appropriately handle accusations of clergy sexual abuse, there has been no news of movement on that matter since.