Updated at 12:56 p.m. ET
Pope Francis is urging predator priests who have raped or molested children to turn themselves in “to human justice, and prepare for divine justice,” devoting part of his Christmas message to the abuse scandals that he said have undermined the Catholic Church in 2018.
As cardinals and other church luminaries listened in the Vatican’s ornate Clementine Hall on Friday, Francis also compared priests who break their vows to Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus Christ.
Francis told them that Judas “will always be present in the church,” because he represents an element of human weakness.
From Rome, NPR’s Sylvia Poggioli reports that the pope “spoke of the scandals that have undermined his papacy – it started with his own mishandling of the scandal in Chile and ended with U.S. prosecutors uncovering decades of cover-ups in the American Catholic Church.”
While acknowledging that the Vatican has made serious mistakes, Francis told the gathering: “The sins and crimes of consecrated persons are further tainted by infidelity and shame; they disfigure the countenance of the church and undermine her credibility.”
The church, Francis said, “will spare no effort to do all that is necessary to bring to justice whosoever has committed such crimes.”
The pope also emphasized the importance of a meeting of bishops in February 2019 to discuss how to protect minors, saying it will bring a chance to rid the institution of the “scourge” of sexual abuse and rape.
Speaking to the Roman Curia — the cardinals and others who make up the Catholic Church’s central government — the pope also gave “heartfelt thanks” to the media for exposing the abuse that has taken place for decades within the church, mentioning journalists “who were honest and objective and sought to unmask these predators and to make their victims’ voices heard.”
Francis also seemed to reject the opinion voiced by some in the church that the media has unduly focused on sexual abuse by priests. “The greater scandal in this matter is that of cloaking the truth,” he said.
At the televised event, cameras panned over the cardinals as they listened to the pope connect symbols and ideas of betrayal in Christianity — Judas, along with St. Augustine’s words about weeds being planted among good seeds — to the current state of the Roman Catholic Church.
“Do you perhaps believe, brethren, that weeds cannot spring up even on the thrones of bishops?” the pope asked.
Referring to Satan, Francis said, “the Tempter, the Great Accuser, is the one who brings division, sows discord, insinuates enmity, persuades God’s children and causes them to doubt.”
“In reality, in reality,” Francis said, looking up at his audience in a break from his prepared speech. He then added, “Behind these sowers of weeds, we always find the 30 pieces of silver.”
According to the Gospel of Matthew, Judas betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver.
At another point in his speech, Francis referred to the Bible’s King David — one of “the Lord’s anointed” who the pope said committed sins of “sexual abuse, abuse of power and abuse of conscience” before finally repenting.
“Today, too, there are many Davids who, without batting an eye, enter into the web of corruption and betray God, his commandments, their own vocation, the church, the people of God and the trust of little ones and their families,” the pope said.
The church will become stronger as it emerges from the scandals, Francis promised, citing Romans 13:12: “The night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
The Christmas speech came days after the pope accepted the resignation of Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Alexander Salazar, who was accused of abusing a minor while he was a priest in Pasadena, Calif., in the 1990s.
As member station KPCC reports, Salazar was the subject of a police report in 2002, but the attorney general decided not to file a charge against him.
Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez says he became aware of the accusations against Salazar in 2005 — and that soon afterward, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith decided that Salazar could remain a bishop, with certain restrictions (which the Holy See has not publicly detailed).
The Salazar case was reviewed again this year by the archdiocese’s independent Clergy Misconduct Oversight Board, which deemed the allegations to be credible. That review was part of a broader inquiry ordered by Gomez.