ROME - Pope Francis said Saturday that silence on sexual abuse cases in the Catholic Church could "no longer be tolerated," and he ordered a "thorough study" of all documents in Vatican offices that concern former U.S. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who resigned in July.
Francis declared in a statement that the church had to "tackle the great scourge of abuse within and beyond" the institution. He said the church had a duty "to prevent such crimes from being committed in the future to the harm of the most innocent and most vulnerable in society."
The pope, who has refused so far to comment on accusations he was aware of misdeeds and abuse committed by former American Cardinal Theodore McCarrick long before he accepted his resignation in July, now has called for an investigation of the paper trail on his case.
Francis ordered McCarrick, 88, the first cardinal in living memory to resign, to a life of prayer and penance.
The scandal reached new heights in August when Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, a former Vatican ambassador to the U.S., wrote a letter in which he called on the pope to resign because he had known of McCarrick's sexual misconduct with seminarians for years without doing anything about it.
Vigano also accused other Vatican and American church leaders of being aware and covering up for the powerful cardinal.
The Vatican statement said Francis was "aware of and concerned by the confusion that these accusations are causing in the conscience of the faithful."
Earlier this week and at this time of crisis for the church, because of the sexual abuse scandals, Francis opened a synod of bishops focused on youth, which will run until Oct. 28. More than 250 bishops from all over the world are attending the meeting, as well as 40 young people.
In a speech at the first working session, the pontiff said, "Brothers and sisters, may the synod awaken our hearts! The present moment, and this applies also to the church, appears to be laden with struggles, problems, burdens."
During a morning Mass in St. Peter's Square for the opening of the synod, the pope urged the bishops to dream of a future free of the mistakes and sins of the past.
American church leaders have been calling for an investigation into how McCarrick managed to rise in the church's hierarchy despite his misconduct. Saturday's statement appeared to be an initial response to the calls.
The statement said Francis "has decided that information gathered during the preliminary investigation be combined with a further thorough study of the entire documentation present in the Archives of the Dicasteries and Offices of the Holy See ... to ascertain all the relevant facts, to place them in their historical context and to evaluate them objectively."