An influential cardinal opened a Vatican symposium on the priesthood Thursday apologising for "unworthy ministers" and the cover-up of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, before an audience that included Pope Francis.
Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet acknowledged that "we are all torn and humbled by these crucial questions that every day question us as members of the Church," with Francis at his side in the Vatican's vast Paul VI Hall.
"Should we not rather refrain from talking about the priesthood when the sins and crimes of unworthy ministers are on the front pages of the international press for betraying their commitment or for shamefully covering up?"
A string of recent investigations exposing paedophile priests have been front page news in recent months, exposing the scale of the problem and the decades-long Church cover-up.
Ouellet is a prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, one of the most important functions within the Curia, the government of the Vatican.
He said the symposium was an opportunity to express regret and ask victims for forgiveness after their lives were "destroyed by abusive and criminal behaviour" hidden or treated lightly to protect the institution and perpetrators.
The symposium would be a "painful and yet necessary exercise" of conscience to analyse the historical, cultural and theological causes of what Francis has referred to as "clericalism", he added.
Ouellet, the main organiser of the three-day symposium, defined it as "abuses of power, spiritual abuses, abuses of conscience, of which sexual abuses are but the tip of the iceberg."
"This symposium takes note of the clamour and anger of the people of God, so we are here to unite our voices with those who are calling for truth and justice," he added.
Francis did not mention the subject of abuse, instead sharing what he considered four "pillars" of the priesthood, drawn from his personal experience.
The symposium – which is expected to attract 500 people – comes two days after victims groups in Italy launched an unprecedented campaign to demand an independent investigation into priest abuse, in the wake of similar inquiries in Germany and France.
A report published last month criticised former pope Benedict XVI for turning a blind eye to abusive priests while he was the Archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1982. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Since becoming pope in 2013, Francis has striven to tackle the decades-long sexual abuse scandals, although many activists against paedophilia insist much more needs to be done.
The Argentine pontiff convened an unprecedented summit on clerical sex abuse in 2019, lifted secrecy rules that hindered investigations of abusing priests, and hardened the punishment of abusers under Vatican law, among other measures.