VALLETTA, Malta - With tears in his eyes, Pope Benedict XVI made his most personal gesture yet to respond to the clerical sex abuse scandal yesterday, telling victims the church will do everything possible to protect children and bring abusive priests to justice, the Vatican said.
The emotional moment carried no new admissions from the Vatican, which has strongly rejected accusations that efforts to cover up for abusive priests were directed by the church hierarchy for decades. But the pontiff told eight Maltese men that the church would "implement effective measures" to protect children, the Vatican said, without offering details.
Benedict met for more than a half-hour with the eight, who say they were abused by four priests when they were boys living in an orphanage. During the meeting in the chapel at the Vatican's embassy here, Benedict expressed his "shame and sorrow" at the pain the men and their families suffered, the Vatican said.
"Everybody was crying," one of the men, Joseph Magro, 38, told Associated Press Television News after the meeting. "I told him my name was Joseph, and he had tears in his eyes."
The visit, which came on the second day of the pope's two-day trip to this largely Roman Catholic island, marked the first time Benedict had met with victims since the worldwide clerical abuse scandal engulfed the Vatican earlier this year.
"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 Vatican statement said.
Victims' advocacy groups have demanded the Vatican take concrete steps to protect children and remove abusive priests and the bishops who protected them, saying the pope's expressions to date of solidarity and shame were meaningless unless actual action is taken.
Lawrence Grech, who led efforts to arrange the encounter, said the pope told each of the men: "I am very proud of you for having come forward to tell your story."
Grech said he told the pontiff: "This is a one-time opportunity in life . . . you have the power to fill the emptiness that I had; someone else took my innocence and my faith."