Pope Francis on Tuesday acknowledged that the cover-up of sexual abuse is driving people away from the Catholic Church — just hours before the release of a devastating report that detailed decades of sexual abuse by priests in Germany.

The report by the German Bishops' Conference looks at abuse by Roman Catholic priests over seven decades until 2014. The stories of 3,677 victims are documented, and close to 1,700 clergy are identified who carried out the sexual abuse.

Many records were destroyed. The report said the true number of victims and perpetrators is likely to be much higher.

"For too long, we in the Catholic Church have looked away, covered up, denied, did not want it to be true," Cardinal Reinhard Marx, head of the German Bishops' Conference, said at a news conference. "For all failure and for all pain, I must apologize."

Speaking to several hundred young people in the Estonian capital of Tallinn, Pope Francis acknowledged that the historical revelations were driving people away from the church.

"They are upset by sexual and economic scandals that do not meet with clear condemnation," he said during the final leg of his three-day trip to the Baltic states. "This is very bad when a church, a community, behaves in such a way that young people believe that it cannot give anything to their lives."

Pope Francis speaks with reporters on his flight back from Tallinn, Estonia, after the final leg of his visit to the Baltic states, Sept. 25, 2018.
Pope Francis speaks with reporters on his flight back from Tallinn, Estonia, after the final leg of his visit to the Baltic states, Sept. 25, 2018.
Such is the scale of the problem now facing the church. In Chile, all of the country's 34 bishops have offered their resignations over allegations of a cover-up. There have been similar revelations in the United States, Australia and the Netherlands.

Jack Valero of Britain-based Catholic Voices said it is a traumatic time for worshippers, but he welcomed the release of the report.

"We want it to end. We don't want any abuse to happen ever again. We want victims recompensed. We want perpetrators and their enablers to be punished. We want all that to happen. So, these reports are good for us, that everything should come out so we can move on," Valero told VOA.

Francis has summoned top bishops from around the world for a February summit at the Vatican on tackling abuse. Some campaigners are calling for an end to the principle that Catholic priests must remain celibate — an issue that Valero calls divisive.

"Celibacy is not a dogma, you know. It is a discipline of the Catholic Church for priests in the West. But I think it's a great gift for the church. I think that it's looking in the wrong place to try to change that," he said.

But Catholics say the church must change if it is to regain trust, and they hope the pope's acknowledgment of the challenge ahead is the first step on that long road.

Henry Ridgwell writes for VOA.

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