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VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis said Friday that he felt responsible for the child sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church, and issued an unprecedented apology.

“I feel compelled to personally take on all the evil which some priests, quite a few in number, obviously not compared to the number of all the priests, to personally ask for forgiveness for the damage they have done for having sexually abused children,” Francis said.

He made the remarks during a meeting with the International Catholic Child Bureau, a non-governmental organization. They were not included in the prepared draft speech that had been circulated previously to journalists, and were published later by Vatican Radio.

“The church is aware of this damage. It is personal, moral damage carried out by men of the church, and we will not take one step backward with regards to how we will deal with this problem, and the sanctions that must be imposed,” the pontiff added.

Francis also stressed that children have to be protected against all forms of violence, including slave labor and enrollment in child armies, and given the right “to grow up in a family with a father and a mother.”

Starting from Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, the Catholic Church has taken an increasingly tough line on child abuse. A growing number of priests accused of molesting children have been defrocked, while penalties in the Vatican legal code have been stiffened.

Last month, Francis tapped a team of eight prelates and lay experts to fill the initial positions of a Vatican committee against child abuse. Irish campaigner Marie Collins, who was molested by a priest as a teenager, was among them.

Groups like the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests say such steps do not go far enough. They want Francis to name and shame bishops who have covered up child molesters in the past, and force them to report all suspect cases to police.