VATICAN CITY (CNA/EWTN News) - In a letter sent to bishops around the world for the feast of the Holy Innocents, Pope Francis lamented the many children who suffer from war, slavery and various forms of abuse, including within the Church.
The Church not only hears the "cries of pain" of her children who suffer from war, slavery and malnutrition, he said, but she also weeps "because she recognizes the sins of some of her members: the sufferings, the experiences and the pain of minors who were abused sexually by priests."
"It is a sin that shames us. Persons responsible for the protection of those children destroyed their dignity. We regret this deeply and we beg forgiveness."
Francis condemned the sin "of failing to help," of "covering up and denial" and the sin of "the abuse of power" that happened in many cases.
In celebrating the Feast of the Holy Innocents, Pope Francis asked his brother bishops to renew "our complete commitment to ensuring that these atrocities will no longer take place in our midst."
"Let us find the courage needed to take all necessary measures and to protect in every way the lives of our children, so that such crimes may never be repeated. In this area, let us adhere, clearly and faithfully, to zero tolerance."
The Pope's words were spoken in a letter, dated on the Dec. 28 feast commemorating the infants slaughtered by King Herod in his attempt to kill Jesus, and was addressed to bishops around the world.
He has often promoted a "zero tolerance" policy on abuse since his election, and has met with victims of clerical sex abuse and their relatives on several occasions.
During his 2015 visit to the United States, Francis met with a group of abuse victims ahead of his audience with the country's bishops, during which he issued harsh words on abuse, noting that many children had been "raped" and that covering up the crime was a "sacrilege."
He has also often praised the great efforts retired Pope Benedict XVI made in dealing with the crisis, saying on his Feb. 18, 2016, return flight from Mexico that his predecessor "deserves applause," because he "fought in moments when he had no strength to impose himself, until he managed to impose himself."
As head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the then-Cardinal Ratzinger "had everything in his hands. He conducted all the investigations, and went on, went on, went on, until he couldn't go any further in the execution."
Francis has also come out as a man of his word when it comes to holding bishops accountable for negligence in abuse cases. Not only did he institute the Commission for the Protection of Minors at the beginning of his pontificate in 2013 as a means of developing guidelines and "best practices" for abuse prevention, but in June 2016 he published a motu proprio titled "Like a Loving Mother" saying negligence on the part of a bishop is enough to oust him from office.
He has also created a Vatican tribunal to prosecute bishops for abuse of office and has so far accepted the resignations of three U.S. bishops accused of mismanaging allegations of abuse: Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph and Archbishop John Nienstedt and Auxiliary Bishop Lee A. Piché, both of whom are from St. Paul-Minneapolis.
In his letter to bishops, Pope Francis also noted the many children who suffer and die due to other forms of abuse, saying to contemplate the manger at Christmas also means to "open our eyes and ears to what is going on around us, and to let our hearts be attentive and open to the pain of our neighbors, especially where children are involved."
Just as St. Joseph was conscious of the events going on around him and was able to interpret them in a realistic way, today's pastors must also be "men attentive, and not deaf, to the voice of God, and hence more sensitive to what is happening all around us," Francis said.
"With St. Joseph as our model, we are asked not to let ourselves be robbed of joy...we need the courage to respond to this reality, to arise and take it firmly in hand. The courage to guard this joy from the new Herods of our time, who devour the innocence of our children."
This innocence is stolen by scourges such as illegal slave labor, exploitation and prostitution. It is "shattered by wars and forced immigration, with the great loss that this entails," he said, noting that many children have fallen into gangs or criminal organizations and "merchants of death, who only devour and exploit their neediness."
He noted that according to statistics, there are currently 75 million children who due to emergency situations and crisis have no education, and that a third of the children who live outside their homelands do so because they have been forcibly displaced.
Pointing to a recent report from UNICEF, the Pope said that unless things change, there will by 167 million children living in "extreme poverty" by 2030, and that 69 million children under the age of five will die between 2016-2030 while 16 million children will not receive a basic education.
Christian joy, he said, "does not arise on the fringes of reality, by ignoring it or acting as if it did not exist." Rather, it is born from the call to "embrace and protect human life, especially that of the holy innocents of our own day."
Francis closed saying Christmas is a time that impels us to "protect life" and which challenges bishops in particular to "find new courage" in both acknowledging the reality that many children experience today, and to work to ensure that their dignity as God's children "will not only be respected but, above all, defended."
"Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of joy, but guard it and nourish its growth," he said, praying they would go forward "with the paternal fidelity of St. Joseph and guided by Mary, Mother of tender love, so that our own hearts may never grow hard."