VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis said Friday that he took personal responsibility for the harm done by priests who sexually abused children, and he pledged the Roman Catholic Church would confront the issue unflinchingly and impose sanctions when necessary.

“The church is aware of this damage,” he said. “It is personal moral damage, carried out by men of the church, and we will not take one step backward regarding how we will deal with this problem. On the contrary, we have to be even stronger, because you cannot interfere with children.”

The remarks were made off the cuff before members of the International Catholic Child Bureau, a French nonprofit that promotes the rights and dignity of children. They were his most forceful comments to date on the church’s abuse scandal.

The comments were the latest sign that he has become sensitized to the gravity of the abuse scandal after coming under criticism from victims’ advocacy groups for a perceived lack of attention to, and understanding of, the toll it has taken on the church and its members.

Two previous popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, condemned priests who harmed children and expressed sorrow and regret over abuse, but Francis is the first pope to take personal responsibility for the scandal.

He said Friday that he felt “compelled to personally take on all the evil” that some priests, “quite a few in number,” had committed against children.

The pope did not specify to what sanctions he was referring, nor to whom they would be applied.

The Vatican has defrocked a number of priests in recent years who were found to have abused children. But it has not taken strong action against priests, bishops or church officials who concealed abuse, helped abusers remain in the ministry or were negligent in dealing with the problem. In his remarks Friday, the pope said that abusers were a small minority.

Advocacy groups have criticized Francis for moving slowly and tentatively in addressing the abuse scandal in his first year as pope, while acting swiftly to shake up the church on other fronts, such as finances. In particular, critics say, the pope has not imposed mandatory discipline on priests and bishops who acted to cover up abuse cases and to shield abusers.

The pope’s words Friday did little to change the critical view of one prominent advocacy group.

“It’s talk,” said Barbara Dorris of the Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests, known as SNAP. “When it comes to finances, or how bishops should live and set an example, he acts. But when it’s about the rape of children, he talks.”

Though the pope spoke about sanctions, he gave no specifics, Dorris said, so “until he takes some actions, it’s hard to believe that his request for forgiveness is serious.”

For example, she said, the Vatican has yet to discipline Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, Mo., who was convicted in 2012 of failing to report a priest who was an active pedophile, a misdemeanor. “The fact that he’s still there sends an important message to other bishops,” Dorris said. “There is no incentive to change one’s behavior to do the right thing.”

Last month, the pope made his first appointments to a special eight-member commission for the protection of minors. Along with prominent public figures such as former Prime Minister Hanna Suchocka of Poland, Francis included Marie Collins, an Irish woman who was molested by a priest as a child and went on to become a victims’-rights activist. The commission was established to advise the pope on how to protect children and counsel victims.

The pope’s comments about sexual abuse during the closed audience were reported in part by Vatican Radio. Vatican Television excluded them entirely in its initial edit of the audience but later restored the pope’s full statement.

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.