Vatican
Pope Francis © AFP MOHAMED EL-SHAHED

The Vatican said on Thursday Pope Francis was on the side of victims of more than 300 “predator” priests in the United States accused of abusing over 1,000 children across seven decades.

“Victims should know that the pope is on their side. Those who have suffered are his priority, and the Church wants to listen to them to root out this tragic horror that destroys the lives of the innocent,” the Vatican said in a statement after a devastating US grand jury report was published on Tuesday that decried a systematic cover-up by the Catholic Church.

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“There are two words that can express the feelings faced with these horrible crimes: shame and sorrow,” it said.

The Vatican statement added that the church needed to learn “hard lessons from its past, and there should be accountability for both abusers and those who permitted abuse to occur”.

The report is thought to be the most comprehensive to date into abuse in the US church, since The Boston Globe first exposed paedophile priests in Massachusetts in 2002.

But while Tuesday’s report led to charges against two priests, one of whom has pleaded guilty, the majority of those responsible are dead and the vast majority of crimes happened too long ago to prosecute, officials said.

The two-year investigation by a grand jury into all but two Pennsylvania dioceses turned up dozens of witnesses and half a million pages of church records containing “credible allegations against over three hundred predator priests.”

More than 1,000 child victims were identifiable, but the “real number” was “in the thousands,” the grand jury estimated.