A major investigation has revealed that French clergy sexually abused more than 200,000 children over the past 70 years, adding that the Catholic Church turned a blind eye to the 'scourge' for too long.
In a Reuters report, Jean-Marc Sauve, the head of the commission, said the church had shown "deep, total and even cruel indifference for years," protecting itself rather than the victims of what was systemic abuse.
He said most of the victims were boys, many of them aged between 10 and 13.
The report said, "Faced with this scourge, for a very long time the Catholic Church's immediate reaction was to protect itself as an institution and it has shown complete, even cruel, indifference to those having suffered abuse.”
The revelations showed the problem in France was more widespread than previously thought and were the latest to rock the Roman Catholic Church, after a series of sexual abuse scandals around the world, often involving children.
Pope Francis expressed gratitude towards victims for having the courage to come forward.
A Vatican statement said: "First of all his thoughts go to the victims, with great sorrow, for their wounds.
"(His thoughts go to) the Church of France, so that, in the awareness of this terrible reality ... it may embark on a path of redemption."
The commission that carried out the investigation was established by Catholic bishops in France at the end of 2018 to shed light on abuses and restore public confidence in the church at a time of dwindling congregations. It has worked independently from the church.
Sauve further said the problem was still there. He added that the church had until the 2000s shown complete indifference to victims and that it only started to really change its attitude in 2015-2016.
According to him, the Catholic Church's teaching on subjects such as sexuality, obedience and the sanctity of the priesthood helped create blind spots which allowed sexual abuse by clergy to happen, adding that the church needed to reform the way it approached those issues to rebuild trust with society.
The church must take responsibility for what happened, the commission said, and ensure reports of abuse were transmitted to judicial authorities.
It must also provide victims with adequate financial compensation, "which, despite not being sufficient (to address the trauma from sexual abuse), is nonetheless indispensable as it completes the recognition process."
The height of the abuse was 1950-1970, the commission said in its report, with an apparent resurgence in cases in the early 1990s.
Many cases are covered by the statute of limitations, but state prosecutors have been alerted of more recent cases and the commission stressed that the church should provide compensation no matter when an offence was committed.
The French findings come a year after Britain said the Catholic Church had received more than 900 complaints involving over 3,000 instances of child sex abuse in England and Wales between 1970 and 2015, and that there had been more than 100 reported allegations a year since 2016.