Pope Francis addresses the crowd in Saint Peter's Square on New Year’s Day. (Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images)

In a letter to U.S. bishops released Thursday by the Vatican, Pope Francis directly acknowledged the damage done to the Catholic Church by sexual abuse scandals and provided a lengthy explanation of his proposed response: one focused on discernment, unity and a “change in our mind-set.”

“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,” Francis wrote. “This has led to a growing sense of uncertainty, distrust and vulnerability among the faithful.”

The 3,600-word letter was largely prescriptive and spiritually oriented. It did not call for new measures to punish high-ranking clerics or hold them accountable — steps recommended by victim advocacy groups.

Instead, Francis made a case that the problem required more than “stern decrees” or “improving flow charts, as if we were in charge of a department of human resources.” He also referenced divisions within the U.S. ranks.

“Let us try to break the vicious circle of recrimination, undercutting and discrediting, by avoiding gossip and slander in the pursuit of a path of prayerful and contrite acceptance of our limitations and sins,” Francis wrote.

Francis’s letter came as the U.S. bishops were gathering for a week-long retreat focused on prayer and spiritual reflection at a seminary outside Chicago. That retreat, which is closed to the media, was suggested by Francis after he met in September with several U.S. Catholic leaders.

For some Vatican watchers, the letter provided signals about how Francis is trying to guide the church through the most turbulent period of his papacy, while dealing with fractures — in the United States and beyond — over the reasons for the clerical abuse scourge. Francis has repeatedly connected the issue to abuses of power and clerics who have lost sight of their mission. But some church traditionalists say he has overlooked a problem of homosexuality in the priesthood.

Tensions have grown between Rome and the U.S. church after a year of abuse-related scandals. When the pope was accused by a former diplomat of knowing about some of the alleged abuses of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a handful of U.S. higher-ups said the accusations were credible. Subsequently, Francis did not green-light an investigation into McCarrick requested by the head of the U.S. bishops conference, Houston’s Cardinal Daniel DiNardo. And the Vatican intervened to halt the U.S. bishops at their annual meeting in November from voting on new measures for handling abuse-related complaints.

Next month, bishops from around the world will meet in Rome for a summit on sexual abuse and the protection of minors. Francis in his letter did not mention that gathering but called for a “collegial and paternal” response, rather than one in which “some emerge as ‘winners’ and others not.”

The pope urged the church leaders to acknowledge “our hurt before the present situation and [let] ourselves together be summoned anew by God’s word.”

“Look, I can understand the Catholics who might scoff and say, ‘We don’t need more discernment. We need action,’ ” said John Gehring, the Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington. “I think what the pope is saying is we need the deep discernment and the change of heart before we get to the policy.”

Scandals in multiple countries over the past year have highlighted the church’s struggle to deal with both abusive clerics and higher-ups who failed to stop them.

In the United States, in addition to McCarrick’s resignation, a blistering Pennsylvania grand-jury report released in August detailed the behavior of 300 “predator priests” over seven decades. Dozens of dioceses have since followed in publicly identifying abusive priests.