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VATICAN CITY– Pope Francis bluntly criticized Catholic bishops in the US for their approach to the church’s sexual abuse crisis, saying in a letter Thursday that it has undermined the church’s credibility and led to increased distrust among lay Catholics.

“The church’s credibility has been seriously undercut and diminished by these sins and crimes, but even more by the efforts made to deny or conceal them,” the Pope said.

Francis also said the bishops’ disunity and finger-pointing has led to mistrust and pain among the church’s followers.

“We know that the sins and crimes that were committed, and their repercussions … have deeply affected the faithful,” the Pope said. “They have caused great perplexity, upset and confusion.”

The letter was sent to Catholic bishops secluded this week at Mundelein Seminary in Illinois for a spiritual retreat, which was suggested by the Pope himself in September “as a necessary step toward responding in the spirit of the Gospel to the crisis of credibility you are experiencing as a Church.”

About 250 bishops are attending the retreat, which ends January 8, according to a spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Francis said he wanted to join the bishops but couldn’t because of “logistical reasons.” In his stead, the Pope sent Capuchin Friar Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher to the papal household. No ordinary business will be conducted during the retreat, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Francis’ letter comes in the wake of a devastating year for American Catholics. A prominent cardinal resigned in disgrace, grand jurors accused hundreds of Catholic clerics of secretly abusing children and a former Vatican ambassador urged the Pope himself to step down.

But the clergy sex abuse scandal shows no signs of abating, with a federal investigation and probes in 12 states and the District of Columbia in the works.

The Pope has convened a meeting of bishops from around the world in Rome February 21-24, saying he wants the church to tackle the scandal together.

But first, Francis said he wants the American bishops to pray and think about the abuse crisis, before they figure out the next steps forward.

The Pope’s eight-page letter to the American bishops is a mix of spiritual encouragement and blunt criticism. He encourages the bishops to root their response to the abuse crisis in Scripture, and makes clear that their actions thus far have been problematic.

“God’s faithful and the Church’s mission continue to suffer greatly as a result of abuses of power and conscience and sexual abuse, and the poor way that they were handled,” the Pope said, “as well as the pain of seeing an episcopate (or body of bishops) lacking in unity and concentrated more on pointing fingers than on seeking paths of reconciliation.”

While the Pope does not lay out an exact strategy for dealing with the crisis, he said the church’s loss of credibility “calls for a specific approach.”

Credibility, Francis said, “cannot be regained by issuing stern decrees or by simply creating new committees of improving flow charts, as if we were in charge of a department of human resources.”

That approach, according to the Pope, risks “reducing everything to an organization problem.”

But the church’s loss of credibility has also “raised painful questions about the way we relate to one another,” he said.

“Clearly, a living fabric has come undone, and we, live weavers, are called to repair it.”

The repairs the Pope suggests require a “new approach to management, but also a change in our mindset, our way of praying, our handling of power and money, our exercise of authority and our way of relating to one another and the world.”

Any approach to the abuse crisis that does not blend spiritual insights with pragmatic steps will be “doomed from the start,” Francis said.

Without both, “everything we do risks being tainted by self-referentiality, self-preservation and defensiveness.”

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a brief statement that the bishops “carry with us these days the pain and hope of all who may feel let down by the Church.”