VATICAN CITY (CBSNewYork/AP)Pope Francis issued a letter to Catholics around the world condemning the “crime” of priestly sexual abuse and cover-up and demanding accountability, in response to new revelations in the United States of decades of misconduct by the Catholic Church.

The move came the day after churches across the American northeast reacted to a shocking new report about priest sex abuse by holding a “Mass of Forgiveness.

From the Vatican, Francis begged forgiveness for the pain suffered by victims and said lay Catholics must be involved in any effort to root out abuse and cover-up. He blasted the self-referential clerical culture that has been blamed for the abuse crisis, with church leaders more concerned for their reputation than the safety of children.

“The heart-wrenching pain of these victims, which cries out to heaven, was long ignored, kept quiet or silenced,” the pope wrote in his letter addressed to the global Catholic community.

According to last week’s grand jury report, a trove of documents containing allegations and admissions of sexual abuse were kept locked up in what the church calls its “secret archives,” with the only key in the bishop’s hands.

“With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives,” Pope Francis wrote.

“We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them,” he continued.

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The Vatican issued the letter Monday, ahead of Francis’ trip this weekend to Ireland that is expected to be dominated by the abuse crisis.

In response to the pope’s letter, Pennsylvania Attorney General John Shapiro called Francis “a fighter for the defenseless” and called on members of the church to come forward to help his state’s investigation.

“It is my hope that, following the Holy Father’s words and teachings, Church leaders in Pennsylvania will cease their denials and deflections and now fully support the Grand Jury’s recommendations so that survivors have the opportunity to obtain justice and ensure this type of widespread abuse and cover up never happens again,” Shapiro said.

New York’s top priest, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, also responded to the pontiff’s letter

“As I read the Holy Father’s words today, there can be no doubt that he ‘gets it,’ and everyone involved in working to end this particular evil can be confident that they have an ally in Pope Francis,” he said.

Previously Dolan had penned a newspaper op-ed stating that he felt “disgusted, hurt and betrayed by the report.”

The findings came two months after Pope Francis ordered disgraced ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick removed from public ministry amid allegations the 88-year-old retired archbishop sexually abused a teenage altar boy and engaged in sexual misconduct with adult seminarians decades ago.

(© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)