Francis referred directly to the crisis convulsing his papacy on the fourth and final day of his Baltic pilgrimage, which coincided with the release of a devastating new report into decades of sex abuse and cover-up in Germany.
Francis told a gathering of young people in Estonia, considered one of the least religious countries in the world, that he knew many young people felt the church had nothing to offer them and simply doesn't understand their problems today.
Those complaints recently poured into the Vatican via surveys commissioned ahead of a big meeting of bishops starting next week on how to better minister to young Catholics.
"We know - and you have told us - that many young people do not turn to us for anything because they don't feel we have anything meaningful to say to them," Francis told a gathering of Catholic, Lutheran, and Orthodox young people. "They are upset by sexual and economic scandals that do not meet with clear condemnation, by our unpreparedness to really appreciate the lives and sensibilities of the young, and simply by the passive role we assign them." He said the church wants to respond to those complaints transparently and honestly.
"We ourselves need to be converted," he said. "We have to realize that in order to stand by your side we need to change many situations that, in the end, put you off." It was a very public admission of the church's failures in confronting sex abuse scandals, which have roared back to the headlines recently with revelations of abuse and cover-up in the US, Chilean and now German church.
The Germany bishops conference on Tuesday was releasing a report that found that some 3,677 people — more than half of them 13 or younger and nearly a third of them altar boys — were abused by clergy between 1946 and 2014.
The report, compiled by university researchers, found evidence that some files were manipulated or destroyed, many cases were not brought to justice, and that sometimes abusers were simply moved to other dioceses without the congregations being informed about their past, according to the results that leaked earlier in the German press.
The scandal, which erupted in Ireland in the 1990s and subsequently Australia and the U.S. in following decades, now threatens Francis' own papacy since a former Vatican ambassador accused him of rehabilitating an American cardinal who slept with seminarians.
Francis has declined to respond to the accusations, but the Vatican is expected to soon.