In response to revelations of sexual crimes by members of the clergy, Pope Francis has just issued a Letter to the People of God, in which he makes a request for universal prayer and fasting.

His letter begins by acknowledging the abuse that has caused so much misery to so many:

“If one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (1 Cor 12:26). These words of Saint Paul forcefully echo in my heart as I acknowledge once more the suffering endured by many minors due to sexual abuse, the abuse of power and the abuse of conscience perpetrated by a significant number of clerics and consecrated persons.

He continues by pointing out the insufficiency of mea culpas, writing:

“Looking back to the past, no effort to beg pardon and to seek to repair the harm done will ever be sufficient…

We have realized that these wounds never disappear and that they require us forcefully to condemn these atrocities and join forces in uprooting this culture of death; these wounds never go away.”

Pope Francis continues by acknowledging the ecclesiastical failure to protect the innocent:

“The heart-wrenching pain of these victims, which cries out to heaven, was long ignored, kept quiet or silenced.”

“With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives. We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them.”

“We abandoned them.” These words are almost impossibly sad to hear, and completely impossible to comprehend.

On a hopeful note, Pope Francis assures the Catholic and non-Catholic world alike that serious measures have been implemented since much of the abuse in question has taken place. He says that more work is

“being carried out…to ensure the safety and protection of the integrity of children and of vulnerable adults, as well as implementing zero tolerance and ways of making all those who perpetrate or cover up these crimes accountable. We have delayed in applying these actions and sanctions that are so necessary, yet I am confident that they will help to guarantee a greater culture of care in the present and future.”

But even though dramatic changes have taken place and even though objective systems have been put in place in an effort to protect the innocent, Pope Francis acknowledges that these cannot undo the devastating damage already inflicted. Many of these sins were not admitted in the past, and though Pope Francis demands that they be acknowledged now. He writes,

“It is essential that we, as a Church, be able to acknowledge and condemn, with sorrow and shame, the atrocities perpetrated by consecrated persons, clerics, and all those entrusted with the mission of watching over and caring for those most vulnerable.”

While acknowledgement is needed, he says, acknowledgement alone “is not enough.” He writes, “If, in the past, the response was one of omission, today we want solidarity”; he urges us to “take on the pain of our brothers and sisters wounded in their flesh and in their spirit.” Pope Francis urges all the faithful—in spirit and in effect—to help carry the crosses of the wounded.

Moreover, as serious sins require serious mortifications, Pope Francis writes, “I invite the entire holy faithful People of God to a penitential exercise of prayer and fasting, following the Lord’s command.” He says that such mortification “can awaken our conscience and arouse our solidarity and commitment to a culture of care that says ‘never again’ to every form of abuse.”

He continues:

May fasting and prayer open our ears to the hushed pain felt by children, young people and the disabled. A fasting that can make us hunger and thirst for justice and impel us to walk in the truth, supporting all the judicial measures that may be necessary. A fasting that shakes us up and leads us to be committed in truth and charity with all men and women of good will, and with society in general, to combating all forms of the abuse of power, sexual abuse and the abuse of conscience.

Pope Francis closes with a prayer to the Holy Spirit: “May the Holy Spirit grant us the grace of conversion and the interior anointing needed to express before these crimes of abuse our compunction and our resolve courageously to combat them.”