EAST Lancashire priests have said that there will be no ‘hiding place’ for the ‘wicked and wrong’ abusers of children in the Catholic Church.

Members of the clergy spoke out after Pope Francis insisted the church would ‘not take one step backward’ in tackling the problem, which has blighted the faith in recent years.

The move, which could now open the floodgates for hundreds of compensation claims by victims, has been supported across the area, with one priest saying the Pope’s strong stance is right even if it does bankrupt the Catholic hierarchy.

Several former priests and teachers at the Jesuit-run Stonyhurst College in the Ribble Valley were investigated over sex abuse allegations in the late 90s Father James Chaning-Pearce, who taught maths and physics there, was convicted of molesting four boys and jailed for five years in 1997.

And Father John James Pearson was later jailed for two years after admitting to more than 20 indecency charges at Preston Crown Court, also relating to Stonyhurst.

Governors at Preston Catholic College, which took in a number of East Lancashire pupils, were also forced to pay out damages to ex-city lawyer Patrick Raggett, in November 2012, over the abuse he suffered there at the hands of the late Father Michael Spencer in the 1970s.

Just last month the United Nations criticised the Vatican for not doing enough to address the issue, amid claims senior officials were more concerned with protecting the church’s reputation.

The Pope’s signal, in a Vatican Radio broadcast, has been strongly welcomed by a number of church figures locally, as he said he wanted to ‘personally ask for forgiveness for the damage [some priests] have done for having sexually abused children’.

Father Jude Harrison, from St Alban’s in Blackburn, said: “I think it’s been a long time coming for a Pope to make an apology as plain as this.

“There’s no ambiguity about it. He’s really nailed his colours to the mast and said there have been some awful things that were wicked and wrong.

“He’s put his hand up and said there’s no escape or hiding place.

“We live in a pretty nasty world when it comes to legal claims but I think because he’s come from such a simple background he’s not thought about that side of it. He’s just said we’re the church of the people, so if we end up bankrupt then so be it.”

Father Michael Waters, of St John’s RC, Burnley, said: “It has been a big issue for the clergy, and something we have been conscious of, and we are very happy now that the Pope has spoken out on our behalf.

“Throughout our diocese, and all the parishes, there is a rigorous scheme for the protection of children and vulnerable adults, and applies to all our volunteers.

“In light of the recent publicity, involving celebrity figures, this is clearly an issue for wider society as well.”

Father Leo Heakin, of St Mary’s, Langho, said: “He’s the leader of the church and this is a very important step.

“Possibly he could have said something sooner but he’s judged that now is the right time. We have very good child protection policies in this diocese and I think we’re ahead of other countries with that.”

Canon Charles Dorran, of St Mary’s, Osbaldeston, said: “It’s absolutely right that he’s come out and apologised and I support Pope Francis 100 per cent.”

Canon Kevin Kenny, of St Mary & St John’s Priory, Pleasington, said: “There’s always a right time for expressing these sort of sentiments, particularly this week when we are thinking of the death and resurrection of our Lord.”

The Bishop of Salford, the Right Rev Terence Brain, head of the Catholic Church for most of East Lancashire, was unavailable for comment last night.

But he previously apologised when nearly 60 former pupils of leading Manchester grammar school St Bede’s said they had been abused by Monsignor Thomas Duggan, saying the behaviour had ‘no place within the Catholic Church’.