WASHINGTON — Pope Benedict XVI came face to face with a scandal that has left lasting wounds on the American church Thursday, holding a surprise meeting with several victims of sexual abuse by priests in the Boston area.
Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston, who organized the meeting and attended, gave the pope a notebook listing 1,000 boys and girls who were abused in the Boston archdiocese alone going back several decades, a Vatican official said.
The pope had requested the meeting, said the official, the Rev. Federico Lombardi. The five or six victims, male and female, are roughly in middle age and the pope prayed and spoke privately with each of them in a meeting that lasted about 25 minutes. Some wept, Lombardi said.
"My hope is restored today," one of them, Olan Horne, told CNN.
The meeting made clear that for all the messages Benedict wishes to send during his five-day trip to the United States, the one concerning priestly abuse is most central. It was the first publicly known meeting between a pontiff and victims since the most recent scandal erupted in Boston six years ago.
The pope's day began with a huge open Mass at Nationals Stadium before about 45,000 people, where he raised the abuse issue for the third time since he arrived. His schedule also included a speech to Catholic college and university presidents.
But the real drama happened privately, in the chapel of the papal embassy between events.
Bernie McDaid, one of the victims, said in an interview with CNN that he told the pope he was an altar boy when he was abused and "it wasn't just sexual abuse, it was spiritual abuse. And I want you to know that. And then I told him that he has a cancer growing in his ministry, and needs to do something about it. And I hope he hears me … and he nodded."
More than 5,000 priests have been accused of molesting more than 13,000 people in the United States since 1950. The church has paid out more than $2-billion, much of it in just the past six years, after the case of a serial molester in Boston gained national attention and inspired many victims to step forward. Six dioceses have been forced into bankruptcy because of abuse costs.
"No words of mine could describe the pain and harm inflicted by such abuse," the pope said in his homily at the stadium. "It is important that those who have suffered be given loving pastoral attention."
McDaid said that he wished the meeting with the pope had happened sooner but that he felt afterward that the victims would get "not just words but action."
For years, abuse victims in the United States beseeched the Vatican for a meeting with the pope, first asking John Paul II, and finally, six years after the outbreak of the scandal, one was granted.
Some praised the meeting as an important step, and others said it was not enough.
"This is a small, long-overdue step forward on a very long road," Joelle Casteix, southwestern regional director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said in a statement. "We're confident the meeting was meaningful for the participants and we're grateful that these victims have had the courage to come forward and speak up.
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The surprise meeting far overshadowed the rest of the pope's schedule, the third day of his trip to America and a day before he leaves for New York to address the United Nations. But he also gave a substantial address to Catholic educators, many of whom have been struggling with shortages of funds, changing missions and conflicts over whether the schools are Catholic enough.
At a time when many dioceses are closing parochial schools for K-12 students, Benedict stressed the importance of keeping them open, especially to serve immigrants and the underprivileged. He also used the occasion to clarify limits, saying that although academic freedom is valuable, it must not be used to "justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the church."
There have been sporadic controversies over what kinds of curriculum, outside speakers, campus clubs and artistic expressions are acceptable at Catholic colleges and universities. Colleges have come under fire for inviting speakers who favor abortion rights, such as Hillary Rodham Clinton. The University of Notre Dame was recently criticized for allowing a campus staging of The Vagina Monologues, an edgy feminist theater piece.
The pope did not refer explicitly to those controversies. However, he addressed them indirectly when he said that church teachings must shape "all aspects of an institution's life, both inside and outside the classroom."
The pope insisted on adherence to church doctrine, saying, "Divergence from this vision weakens Catholic identity, and, far from advancing freedom, inevitably leads to confusion, whether moral, intellectual or spiritual."
The Rev. Robert Wild, the president of Marquette University, said after the pope's speech, "What was most striking to me is what it was not. We were not being told that most Catholic schools are not faithful to our message. It was not a finger-waving exercise. It was mostly to encourage us."
The pope had additional healing to do at his evening encounter with Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Jain religious leaders. On a previous trip, to his German homeland, Benedict set off a paroxysm of anger with comments that appeared to denigrate Islam. He has also offended Jewish leaders by reinstituting a prayer for the conversion of the Jews in the Latin prayers on Good Friday.
On Thursday, he offered an olive branch to Jewish leaders and affirmed that all religions should have a common goal of working for peace. And he spoke of the need to protect religious freedom, pointing out that religious minorities in some countries are subject to discrimination and prejudice.
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At the new Nationals Park, some 45,000 people waved Vatican flags and shed tears when Benedict arrived in his popemobile, in a ballfield setting complete with sausage and $20 souvenir pope hats.
The Mass was the pope's first real encounter with the American church, and the people in the stands poured out affection. Although Benedict is avowedly part of the church's more orthodox wing, some at the Mass said he seemed eager to address the full church, in all its complexity.
"He is open to things and that gives a feeling of hope to people who have felt left out," said Barbara Thomas, 51, of Columbia, Md.
Information from the Associated Press and Washington Post was used in this report.