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Associated Press – July 21, 2008
SYDNEY, Australia – Pope Benedict XVI ended his visit to Australia Monday by meeting with victims of sexual abuse inflicted by Roman Catholic clergy – an issue that has scandalized the church at a time when the Vatican concedes it is struggling to draw people to its fold.
He conducted a private Mass and spoke with four abuse victims – two men and two women – at a cathedral in Sydney shortly before leaving Australia, where two days earlier he made a forthright apology for the suffering of those maltreated by church officials. The meeting comes on the heels of a similar one in the United States in April.
But the gestures weren’t enough for activists in Australia who demand the church must pay reparations for the abuse, accusing church leaders of trying to block compensation claims in the courts.
“It doesn’t alter things because it’s purely public relations,” said Bernard Barrett of activist group Broken Rites of Monday’s meeting. “I think it’s a cynical exercise,” he told the Fairfax Radio Network.
The Vatican said the meeting lasted for about one hour and was arranged so the pope could express his “concern for those who have been abused by members of the church.”
“He listened to their stories and offered them consolation,” the Vatican said in a statement.
The victims’ identities were kept secret, but, in a statement released to the Australian Broadcasting Corp., two of them said Benedict had “listened closely and was moved” during the meeting, and “was compassionate in his words of consolation to us.”
On a trip to the United States in April, Benedict for the first time met privately with a small group of sexual abuse victims, after publicly expressing shame on behalf of the church for the scandal.
The problem of clergy sexual abuse has rocked the church in recent years, and Benedict has sought to address it directly since he became pope in 2005.
On Saturday, he said in a speech to senior clergy in Australia he was “deeply sorry” for the suffering caused by the acts of officials who deserved “unequivocal condemnation.”
Australia’s senior Roman Catholic cleric, Sydney Cardinal George Pell, responded to the activists’ claims at a press conference, where he said the four victims had been chosen by the church’s organization that handled abuse complaints.
“I was moved by the encounter. I think it will have a positive effect with the people that were there,” Pell told reporters. “The aim was for healing and reconciliation.”
Victim support groups accused the church of stage-managing the meeting to keep the details secret and of picking victims who thought the Church was doing enough to help those harmed.
“They’ve not been prepared to face someone who disagrees,” Broken Rites spokeswoman Chris MacIsaac said.
The abuse scandal was a sour undertone to the pope’s trip to Australia for the Church’s World Youth Day festival, which gathered hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to Sydney for six days of events meant to inspire faith.
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.
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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