Dec. 21 (UPI) -- Pope Francis had strong words Friday for Catholic priests who sexually abuse minors while continuing to hide behind the church.
In his annual Christmas speech, Francis urged such priests to turn themselves "over to justice, and prepare for divine justice."
The pope said the abusers are more afraid of being exposed than fearing "God or His judgement."
"The church has for some time been firmly committed to eliminating the evil of abuse, which cries for vengeance to the Lord, to the God who is always mindful of the suffering experienced by many minors because of clerics and consecrated persons: abuses of power and conscience and sexual abuse," the pope said. "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."
Francis also assured victims that the church will not cover up any case of abuse.
"Often behind their boundless amiability, impeccable activity and angelic faces, they shamelessly conceal a vicious wolf ready to devour innocent souls."
The pontiff addressed accusations that say news media focus too much on sex abuse in the church. Francis thanked reporters "who were honest and objective and sought to unmask these predators and to make their victims' voices heard."
The church needs help from the Roman Curia, or Vatican leadership, "in her difficult task of recognizing real from false cases, accusations from slander, grievances from insinuations, gossip from defamation," Francis said.
The Catholic church was hit by multiple abuse scandals in 2018, including a grand jury report in Pennsylvania that accuses 300 priests over several decades. That triggered similar investigations in several other states. Also, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a longtime leader in the church, was removed after being accused of misconduct toward minors and adults.