POPE Francis has urged predator priests to turn themselves in, in his strongest comments to date on the child sexual abuse crisis sweeping the Roman Catholic Church.
Speaking in his annual address to the Curia at the Vatican, the Pontiff also vowed the Church would never again treat abuse allegations without "seriousness and promptness".
He said: "Let it be clear that, faced with these abominations, the Church will spare no effort to do all that is necessary to bring to justice whosoever has committed such crimes.
"The Church will never seek to hush up or not take seriously any case. It is undeniable that some in the past, out of irresponsibility, disbelief, lack of training, inexperience, or spiritual and human shortsightedness, treated many cases without the seriousness and promptness that was due.
"That must never happen again. This is the choice and the decision of the whole Church".
The Pope also thanked journalists who have helped expose the global sex abuse crisis and encouraged survivors to speak out.
"I myself would like to give heartfelt thanks to those media professionals who were honest and objective and sought to unmask these predators and to make their victims' voices heard," he continued.
"The Church asks that people not be silent... since the greater scandal in this matter is that of cloaking the truth."
The Holy Father had a message to any clergymen who have sexually abused minors and escaped the law.
"To those who abuse minors I would say this: convert and hand yourself over to human justice, and prepare for divine justice," he said.
As recently as Wednesday, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of an auxiliary bishop – Alexander Salazar of Los Angeles – after he was accused of misconduct with a minor.
And just last week, the Pontiff sacked two prominent cardinals – George Pell from Australia and Francisco Javier Errazuriz from Chile – after similar allegations emerged against them ahead of an unprecedented Vatican summit on the "protection of minors" in February 2019.
The Church-wide meeting next year will be attended by the heads of some 110 national Catholic bishops' conferences and dozens of experts and leaders of religious orders in the Church.
Concluding his speech to the Curia on Friday, Francis expressed his disgust at clerics "who abuse the vulnerable, taking advantage of their position and their power of persuasion".
He added: "They perform abominable acts yet continue to exercise their ministry as if nothing had happened. They have no fear of God or his judgement, but only of being found out and unmasked."
"Often behind their boundless amiability, impeccable activity and angelic faces, they shamelessly conceal a vicious wolf ready to devour innocent souls."
When the Pope has made similar promises of zero tolerance in the past, victim groups have reacted with deep cynicism and called for the Church to come up with a clear policy to make bishops themselves accountable for ignoring abuse.
Activists say the February meeting must achieve precisely this.