Pope Francis has told the Vatican to "act decisively" against sexual abuse and carry out "due proceedings against the guilty," the Vatican announced Friday.
Francis last month took the helm of a Roman Catholic Church that has been rocked in recent years by allegations of priests sexually abusing minors.
Francis recommended that the Church's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith "act decisively with regard to cases of sexual abuse, first of all by promoting measures for the protection of minors, as well as in offering assistance to those who have suffered abuse, carrying out due proceedings against the guilty," the Vatican said.
The statement does not specify who "the guilty" are.
But in recent years, priests, nuns and other people connected to the Catholic Church have been accused of sexually abusing children.
Francis called for the Church hierarchy to "formulate and implement" the necessary directives to address an area he described as "so important" to the Church's credibility and worship.
The pope said that the "victims of abuse are present in a particular way in his prayers for those who are suffering," the Vatican said.
It's the first time Francis has publicly addressed the issue since becoming pope.
His instructions to move decisively, "continuing along the lines set by Benedict XVI," came before an audience that included Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Muller, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The U.S.-based group SNAP, or the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, reacted with skepticism to the news from the Vatican.
Barbara Dorris, victims outreach director for SNAP, said there was a need for action rather than words.
"Once again, as has happened hundreds of times already, a top Catholic official says he's asking another top Catholic official to take action about pedophile priests and complicit bishops," she said in a statement. "Big deal."
The new pope should be ordering a change of track rather than a continuation on the same course, Dorris said.
"It's tragic that Pope Francis is asking a top aide to stay on the irresponsible path charted by Pope Benedict," she said. "It's tragic that a pope who's shown a willingness to send signals that hint at change in several ways is not signaling that he wants no change in how the church deals with child sex crimes and cover ups."
She called for concrete action to protect vulnerable children, "not old vague pledges that help a widely-discredited institution protect its reputation."
Benedict XVI said many times that the abusers should be prosecuted, but was accused by SNAP and other victims' groups of doing too little.
He stepped down as pontiff at the end of February.
CNN's Livia Borghese reported from Rome. Richard Allen Greene reported and Laura Smith-Spark wrote and reported in London.