(Pope Francis waves as he arrives for a meeting with members of an association for children at the Vatican April 11, 2014.  Rueters/Osservatore Romano)

Pope Francis made his first public plea for forgiveness on Friday for the “evil” committed by priests who molested children, using some of his strongest words yet on the Roman Catholic Church’s sexual abuse crisis.

The Argentine-born pontiff said the Church, which last month named a high-level group on the scandal including an abuse victim, had to take an stronger stand on a scandal that has haunted it for more than two decades, and indicated there would be repercussions for perpetrators.

“I feel compelled to personally take on all the evil that some priests – quite a few in number, (although) obviously not compared to the number of all priests – to personally ask for forgiveness for the damage they have done for having sexually abused children,” he told members of the International Catholic Child Bureau.

“The church is aware of this … 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 to the sanctions that must be imposed.