LONDON – Pope Benedict XVI apologized Saturday to five people who were molested by priests as children in his latest effort to defuse the sex abuse crisis shaking his church, as thousands of people angered at the Vatican’s response marched in central London in the biggest protest of his 5-year papacy.
Benedict met for about 30-40 minutes with the victims – four women and a man from Scotland, England and Wales – at the Vatican’s ambassador’s residence in Wimbledon and expressed “his deep sorrow and shame over what the victims and their families suffered,” according to the Vatican.
The sex abuse scandal has clouded Benedict’s state visit to this deeply secular nation with a centuries-old history of anti-Catholic sentiment. Polls have indicated widespread dissatisfaction with the way Benedict has handled the crisis, with Catholics nearly as critical as the rest of the population.
During a Mass in Westminster Cathedral earlier Saturday, Benedict said he hoped the church’s humiliation would help victims heal and help the church purify itself and renew its commitment to educating the young.
The meeting with victims took place about a 30-minute ride on London’s Underground from a protest march route from Hyde Park to Downing Street.
Organizers said nearly 20,000 people – twice the number expected – took part.
On Friday, Benedict’s visit had been overshadowed by the arrest of six men suspected of plotting an attack on the pontiff.
But Scotland Yard said Saturday that searches of premises connected with the men had not turned up any weapons or explosives, and today said all of the men were released.