VATICAN CITY -- Facing heavy pressure to take a personal role in the ongoing clergy sex abuse crisis, Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday met privately with eight men who said that as children they were sexually abused by priests in Malta, the island nation Benedict visited on Sunday.
According to a statement from the Vatican about the meeting with victims, the pope "was deeply moved by their stories and expressed his shame and sorrow over what victims and their families have suffered."
"He prayed with them and assured them that the Church is doing, and will continue to do, all in its power to investigate allegations, to bring to justice those responsible for abuse and to implement effective measures designed to safeguard young people in the future," the statement
The atmosphere during the 20-minute meeting was "very intense but very serene," Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, added later. The pope gave each of the men a rosary and they said a brief prayer together. The pope gave no official comments, but spoke briefly with each man in either English or Italian, both of which are common languages in Malta.
After the meeting at the chapel of the Vatican embassy to Malta, one of the victims, Lawrence Grech, 37, said: "Today I feel much better because I just met the Pope."
"I lost my faith in the last 20 years," Grech said. "I told him 'you can fill up the emptiness, fill up what the priests took from me when I was young'...This experience is going to change my life. Now I can go to my daughter and say 'I believe,' " he said
, breaking into tears.
Another victim, Joseph Magro, said most of those at the meeting were crying and that the pope had "tears in his eyes."
"I made peace with the church," Magro said, according to National Catholic Reporter
. Another victim at the meeting, who asked to be described as "Immanuel," said that the victims "will continue the fight for justice," and insisted that they do not want money from the Catholic church, according to NCR.
Magro, Grech and eight other men filed a criminal suit in 2003 against priests they say molested them when they were growing up in an orphanage in Malta. They say that church officials in Malta have been investigating the case since then but have not yet determined how to proceed against the priests. According to The New York Times account
. Grech said three are still working as priests in Malta and one is now in Italy,
Lombardi said the meeting was a "symbolic" encounter more than a "legal" one.
Pope Benedict had met with abuse victims on three previous occasions: during his April 2008 visit to the United States, and later that year, in July, when he visited Australia; he also met with a delegation of Canadian victims who came to Rome last year for a private audience. All three countries had been rocked by media revelations of years of sexual abuse by clergy, and the pope was praised for meeting the victims.
But the pontiff has not met with abuse victims in a year, and as a new wave of revelations broke earlier this year, they raised questions of Benedict's own role in several cases when he was an archbishop in his native Germany and later as the Vatican's top watchdog on orthodoxy and morals.
Benedict has, however, resisted calls for him to speak publicly or personally about his reactions to the scandals or his own role in the crisis over the past three decades.
The Malta trip had been planned long before the latest episode in the clergy abuse crisis, and had been considered a safe harbor of sorts for the pope. The occasion of his visit was to mark the 1,950 years since Saint Paul was shipwrecked on Malta on his way to Rome (a story Paul vividly recounted
in the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament) to face prison and execution, and nearly 95 percent of Malta's 450,000 inhabitants are Catholic.
But the scandal has battered Malta as well. The 10 Maltese men behind the criminal suit came forward earlier this month saying they wanted to meet with the Pope to tell him their stories and to request an apology. They say they were abused by four priests at a Catholic orphanage. Billboards announcing the Pope's overnight visit (he was to return to Rome Sunday evening after an open-air rally with young people) were covered with symbols representing pedophilia abuse, and civil and church officials feared public protests.
Ahead of the visit the Vatican had indicated the Pope would be open to meeting with some victims, but as always, the Vatican said the Pope would not do so under pressure and would not have a public meeting for fear that it would turn into a media circus -- for himself and for the victims.
"The general approach is that these meetings must be done calmly and intentionally, to create an atmosphere of discretion and reflection, not under media pressure," Father Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, told reporters during an April 13 briefing on the Malta trip. "There must be the possibility of listening and personal communication."
Lombardi cautioned journalists against creating "great expectations" for a meeting.
That is probably good advice, even after Sunday's moving encounter.
Leaders of SNAP, for example, the largest and best-known network of clergy abuse victims, supported the decision of the men in Malta to meet with the pope. But they took strong issue with the Vatican's suggestion that the church is doing "all in its power" to uncover and investigate abuse cases or implement policy changes for bishops around the world.
"On its face, that's just wrong," said Peter Isely, a SNAP
leader. "Benedict has been Pope for five years. Under his rule, the Vatican has disciplined two predator priests. It hurts and endangers kids when adults confuse inaction with action and recklessness with effectiveness." (The Vatican says it is considering changes that might lead to universal policies on reporting abusers and child-protection procedures, but says the issue is complex.)
Moreover, at least two victims who met with Benedict in Washington in 2008 recently said they would be in Rome on Oct. 31 -- the anniversary of the Protestant Reformation -- to continue to press the pope to implement policy changes that are binding on bishops around the globe.
"I told the pope when I met him that you have a cancer in your flock, and you need to do something about it," said
Bernie McDaid. "It's been two years now, and little has been done."
As for the rest of Benedict's 24-hour stopover in Malta, it was largely marked by a pattern that has held throughout these months of growing crisis: Aides and officials around the pontiff address the scandals directly, if often defensively, while Benedict himself makes indirect references at best, or statements so ambiguous they could be spun many ways and in different directions.
In his only public reference to the abuse crisis, Benedict spoke to reporters Saturday afternoon on the flight from Rome to Malta. He did not respond directly to pre-selected question from the journalists, but instead offered what Lombardi called a "synthetic talk" summing up his thoughts in a brief discussion
The Pope proceeded to reflect on the story of Paul's shipwreck, saying "the shipwrecks of life can be part of God's project for us, and be useful for a new beginning in our life." He added that while the church in Malta "is wounded by our sins" -- an apparent reference to the abuse cases -- "the Lord still loves this Church."
Even at the pope's final event on Sunday, a late afternoon meeting with young people that was seen as a highlight of the journey -- as well as a venue made for addressing the topic of clergy abuse of minors -- Benedict XVI did not go off message.
Instead, he told the young people how Saint Paul "was once an enemy of the Church, and did all he could to destroy it" but was converted by Christ's love. He warned them that today's culture often espouses ideas that are contrary to the Gospel, "presented with great persuasive power, reinforced by the media and by social pressure from groups hostile to the Christian faith," and he exhorted them not to be swayed.
In his homily
at the Sunday morning mass, the main event on this visit, Benedict also made no direct reference to the scandals and instead told Maltese Catholics to look to the church rather than the modern world for answers. "Many voices try to persuade us to put aside our faith in God and his church," he warned.
By contrast, in remarks to the pope at the start of mass, the Archbishop of Malta, Paul Cremona, spoke directly about the abuse crisis. Speaking of the need for "a church humble enough to recognize the failures and sins in its members." He also spoke of the need for "a Church which does not seek privileges."
Also, in welcoming the Pope late Saturday afternoon, Maltese President George Abela said priests sometimes "unfortunately go astray" and it was "the church and even the state's duty to work hand in hand" to prevent abuse and punish offenders "so that justice will not only be done but seen to be done."
The Malta trip was certainly rich in ironies and metaphors for the pope. Not only was there the analogy of Saint Paul's shipwreck and the current travails of the church -- which has traditionally been portrayed as a ship -- but the dark cloud of volcanic ash from the ongoing eruption in Iceland was descending steadily over Italy and seemed to offer a ready-made metaphor for those inclined to see it that way.
It's apparent the Pope did not want to. He headed back to Rome -- and, inevitably, further criticisms and questions -- even as thousands of other would-be pilgrims across Europe and the globe remained stranded in airports.