Feb. 21 (UPI) -- Catholics need "concrete and effective measures" to stop the "plague" of sexual abuse in the church, Pope Francis told a historic gathering of senior bishops in Vatican City on Thursday.
The first-of-its-kind summit aims to address abuse scandals that have permeated the church in recent years. The meeting, titled "The Protection of Minors in the Church," is intended to give senior bishops clear guidelines to follow when accusations surface. Pope Francis urged the bishops to take the crisis seriously and "listen to the screams of the little ones asking for justice."
"May the Virgin Mary enlighten us to try and heal the great wounds that the scandal of pedophilia has caused in both children and the believers," Francis said.
Nearly 200 senior bishops in attendance scribbled on notepads as the pontiff and others spoke. The meeting is closed to the media but portions were livestreamed. Responsibility was the main theme for Thursday.
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle from the Philippines fought back tears during his remarks.
"Our lack of response to the suffering of victims, even to the point of rejecting them, and covering up the scandal to protect the perpetrators and the institution, has injured our people," he said.
The event included audio testimony from five abuse victims, one of whom spoke of the "total loss of the innocence of my youth" and a ticking "time bomb" that could destroy "whole generations" of children and skeptical reactions from church authorities after reporting the abuse.
Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, a sex crimes investigator, said victims should have a clear point of contact for reporting abuse and every case should be investigated "with the help of experts."
"We have been entrusted with the care of our people," Scicluna said. "It is our sacred duty to protect our people and to ensure justice when they have been abused."
He also said it's essential that the church acknowledge and condemn reported cases of abuse.
"The faith community under our care should know we mean business," he said. "They should come to know us as friends of their safety and that of their children and youth.
"We will engage them with candor and humility. We will protect them at all cost. We will lay down our lives for the flocks entrusted to us."