SYDNEY, Australia – Pope Benedict XVI met privately today 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 nine-day visit to Australia for the church’s global youth festival.
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 Benedict do more to provide financial compensation and psychological help.
The Vatican did not give details of conversations between the pope and the victims he met with for about an hour today “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.”
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 in April.
Benedict’s pilgrimage to Australia was the farthest journey yet of his three-year papacy, and one intended to inspire a new generation of faithful while trying to overcome the dark chapter of 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 about 350,000 people from almost 170 countries packed the Royal Randwick Racecourse – 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.”