By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis, in some of his most candid and personal comments on the sexual abuse of children by priests, said on Thursday that the Catholic Church had "arrived late" in dealing with the problem.
Francis, speaking in unscripted remarks to a commission advising him on how to root out sexual abuse, also acknowledged that early in his papacy he had made one bad call in being too lenient with an Italian priest who later went on to abuse again.
He also said he had decided to change current procedures for dealing with abusive priests by eliminating appeals trials in cases where there was definitive proof.
Francis surprised members of the commission by putting aside his entire prepared speech and chatting to them.
"There is the reality that the Church arrived at the consciousness of these crimes a bit late," he said.
"When consciousness arrives late, the means to resolve the problems also arrive late. I am aware of this difficulty but it is reality and I say it plainly: We arrived late."
Church sexual abuse broke into the open in the United States with reports of cases in Louisiana in 1984 and exploded in 2002, when journalists in Boston found that bishops had systematically moved abusers to new posts instead of defrocking them.
Thousands of cases have come to light around the world as investigations have encouraged long-silent victims to go public, shattering the Church’s reputation in places such as Ireland, and more than $2 billion has been paid in compensation.
"The old practice of moving people around and not confronting the problem made consciences fall asleep," he said.
Francis acknowledged that the commission, which was founded in 2014, had to "swim against the tide," a reference to high level defections from its ranks.
"SHAMEFUL LACK OF PROGRESS"
Marie Collins of Ireland, a non-clerical member who was victim of priestly abuse when she was a child, quit in frustration in March, citing a “shameful” lack of cooperation within the Vatican. Another, Peter Saunders of Britain, took a leave of absence last year in protest over a lack of progress.
Francis said that everyone had to realize that sexual abuse is "a sickness" with a high probability of relapse.
"That person may repent today ... but may commit it again after two years. We have to put it into our heads that this is a sickness," he said.
Francis said he would change current Vatican procedures to severely limit chances of appeal for pedophile priests convicted by church tribunals, saying they often were overly legalistic, allowing for reduced sentences on procedural grounds.
"I have decided to balance this out and say that if an abuse of a minor is proven, it is sufficient and there should be no recourse. If the proof is there. Period. It's definitive," he said.
Francis, who was elected in 2013, acknowledged he made one bad judgment early in his papacy concerning an Italian priest, Mauro Inzoli.
In that case, the bishop of Crema, had ruled that Inzoli would be removed from the public ministry while remaining a priest but a Church tribunal ruled that he be defrocked. The pope sided with the bishop.
"I was new (in the papacy) I did not understand these things well and chose the more benevolent of the two sentences but after two years the priest had a relapse. I learned from this," Francis said.
(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Toby Chopra)