Pope meets with abuse victims

July 20, 2008 6:45:58 PM PDT
- Pope Benedict XVI met privately on Monday with Australians who were sexually abused as children by priests, ending a pilgrimage to the country with a gesture of contrition and concern over a scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic church. The pontiff held prayers and spoke with four representatives of abuse victims - two men and two women - in the last hours of his 9-day visit to Australia for the church's global youth festival.

The victims did not speak publicly after the meeting. Support groups for other victims dismissed the gesture as a public relations stunt.

The abuse scandal was a sour undertone to the trip for World Youth Day, which is supposed to be a celebration of faith that inspires a new generation.

On Saturday, Benedict delivered a forthright apology for the scandal, saying he was "deeply sorry" for the victims' suffering. But victims said this was not enough, and demanded that Benedict do more to provide financial compensation and psychological help for them.

The Vatican did not give details of the conversations between the pope and the victims he met for about one hour on Monday "as an expression of his ongoing pastoral concern for those who have been abused by members of the church."

"He listened to their stories and offered them consolation," a Vatican statement said. "Assuring them of his spiritual closeness he promised to continue to pray for them, their families and all victims.

"Through this paternal gesture, the holy father wished to demonstrate again his deep concern for all victims of sexual abuse," it said.

The pope, who has made trying to repair damage caused by the scandal one of the themes of his papacy, held a similar meeting with clergy abuse victims in the United States during a visit there in April.

Bernard Barrett of the Broken Rites group, which estimates there are thousands of clergy sexual abuse cases in Australia, said the victims met by the pope were carefully chosen as people who would not cause trouble.

"It doesn't alter things, because it's purely public relations," Barrett told the Fairfax Radio Network. "I think it's a cynical exercise.

Benedict left Australia for Rome mid-morning on a chartered plane. At a brief ceremony at the airport, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd thanked the pope for coming and announced that Australia would post an ambassador in the Vatican for the first time. Former conservative deputy prime minister Time Fischer will take up the post, which has previously been Ireland-based, next year.

Benedict's pilgrimage to Australia was the furthest journey yet of his three-year papacy, and one intended to inspire a new generation of faithful while trying to overcome the dark chapter for his church from the sex abuse scandal.

Summing up his message, Benedict told young pilgrims at a Mass on Sunday that a "spiritual desert" was spreading throughout the world and challenged them to shed the greed and cynicism of their time to create a new age of hope.

The Vatican said some 350,000 faithful from almost 170 countries packed the Randwick race track - many of them camping out in sleeping bags in the mild chill of the Australian winter - for the outdoor Mass.

Benedict urged the young Christians to create "a new age in which hope liberates us from the shallowness, apathy and self-absorption which deadens our souls and poisons our relationships."