VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis ended a landmark Vatican meeting on clerical sexual abuse with an appeal “for an all-out battle against the abuse of minors,” which he compared to human sacrifice, but he did not offer concrete policy remedies demanded by many of the faithful.
In a speech at the end of a Mass in the Apostolic Palace’s frescoed Sala Reggia hall, Francis argued that “even a single case of abuse” in the Roman Catholic Church — which he said was the work of the devil — must be met “with the utmost seriousness.”
He said that eradicating the scourge required more than legal processes and “disciplinary measures.”
“To combat this evil that strikes at the very heart of our mission,” the pope said, the church needed to protect children “from ravenous wolves.”
Francis called the meeting in September, summoning church leaders from around the world amid a cascade of civil investigations into clerical sexual abuse in the United States and accusations from within his own hierarchy that he had covered up the misconduct of a top prelate, Theodore McCarrick, a former cardinal and archbishop of Washington who was defrocked.
Decades after the sexual abuse crisis first exploded in the United States, Francis sought to get the church’s leaders on the same page for the first time.
High-profile cases involving the negligence by bishops, the abuse of nuns and other misconduct added to the pressure on Francis to do more than speak about ending the crisis.
On Sunday, he compared the abuse of minors to “sacrificing human beings, frequently children, in pagan rites.”
“Consecrated persons, chosen by God to guide souls to salvation, let themselves be dominated by their human frailty or sickness and thus become tools of Satan,” he added. “In abuse, we see the hand of the evil that does not spare even the innocence of children. No explanations suffice for these abuses involving children.”
Francis sought to tamp down expectations about the meeting, fostered by some of his own bishops, that the conference would deliver concrete remedies to end a scourge that has devastated the church and threatened the legacy of his papacy.
He said the meeting had been intended to educate all the bishops on the gravity of the problem of sexual abuse; many were skeptical about such cases in their home countries.
Faithful Catholics — especially those in the United States and other countries that had grappled with the problem for years — had demanded more than soothing homilies: They wanted action that would hold their leaders accountable, once and for all.
They did not get it from the pope’s speech, but church officials have hinted that concrete policy changes are on the horizon, especially on issues of transparency and bishop accountability that were discussed during the meeting.
Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said on Saturday that he was “very pleased” with the meeting, even though specific action still needed to be determined.
“This went far better than I think some of us had hoped,” he said. “Now you have the bishops all saying it’s ubiquitous.”
At first, some countries did not want to admit that they had the same issues as the United States, Cardinal DiNardo said, but in the end he was impressed with the consensus developed among the global bishops.
He said he also expected that the American church would be asked for resources to assist other dioceses in rolling out reforms.
“That’s what I think people want,” he said. “They want us to take action.”