Pope Benedict XVI talked today with Australians who were sexually abused as children by Roman Catholic priests.
Pope meets with abuse victims
SYDNEY // Pope Benedict XVI talked today with Australians who were sexually abused as children by Roman Catholic priests, but critics said the meetings were too secretive and denounced them as a public relations stunt. It was the second time in four months the pontiff has met with victims of clergy abuse, a scandal that has blighted the church in recent years and that Pope Benedict has been struggling to fix.
The pontiff held prayers and spoke with four representatives of abuse victims - two men and two women - in the last hours of a nine-day visit to Australia and two days after he publicly condemned sexual predators in the church and apologised to their prey. The pope held Mass then spoke privately with each of the victims for about an hour this morning, "as an expression of his ongoing pastoral concern for those who have been abused by members of the church," the Vatican said in a statement.
"He listened to their stories and offered them consolation," the 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 victims identities were not made public, and they did not comment after the event.
The pope did not mention the meeting in his two final appearances before leaving Australia. The country's senior Roman Catholic cleric, Cardinal George Pell, said the victims had requested anonymity. He said the meeting had been planned for "some weeks," and that the four had been chosen by the church's professional standards office, the local church body handling abuse complaints. But victim support groups accused the church of stage-managing the meeting to keep the details secret and of picking victims who would not speak to the pope directly about the thorny issue of compensation, which many victims are demanding.
Bernard Barrett of the Broken Rites group, which estimates there are thousands of clergy sexual abuse cases in Australia, said the vast majority of them would take nothing away from Monday's meeting. "It doesn't alter things, because it's purely public relations," Mr Barrett told the Fairfax Radio Network. "I think it's a cynical exercise." At a press conference today, Cardinal Pell defended the limited meetings, saying it was not possible for the pontiff to meet with every victim.
"I was moved by the encounter. I think it will have a positive effect with the people that were there," Cardinal Pell told reporters. "The aim was for healing and reconciliation." When asked whether the victims made suggestions to the pope about the handling of sexual abuse complaints, Cardinal Pell said only that the church is open to "constructive, practical" suggestions. The abuse scandal was a sour undertone to the pope's trip to Australia for the Church's World Youth Day festival. On Saturday, Pope Benedict said he was "deeply sorry" for those who suffered clergy abuse, an evil that deserved "unequivocal condemnation".
Cardinal Pell said in his meetings with victims today, the pope "repeated generally" what he had said earlier in public. The meeting with clergy abuse victims in Australia kept up efforts begun in the United States to publicly atone for the abuse. During a visit there in April, Pope Benedict expressed the church's shame for the maltreatment and met privately with a small group of victims. The pope left Australia for Rome midmorning on a chartered plane.
At a brief ceremony at the airport, the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that Australia would post an ambassador in the Vatican for the first time - the former conservative deputy prime minister Tim Fischer. The Vatican spokesman Rev Federico Lombardi said the Vatican was very pleased that Australia had decided to upgrade its diplomatic relations with the Holy See. Pope 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, the pope told young pilgrims at a mass yesterday 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 attended the mass at a race track, and millions more watched on television. Pope 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".