VALLETTA, Malta — Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday began a pilgrimage in Malta, a Catholic nation buffeted by the worldwide clerical sex abuse scandal and where victims are hoping to meet with him as a way to deal with their pain.
His visit — commemorating the 1,950th anniversary of the shipwreck of St. Paul on Malta — comes at the most turbulent moment in Benedict's papacy, which is struggling to manage a torrent of allegations that the church hierarchy did not move swiftly to discipline priests who had sexually abused minors.
Benedict made no direct comments on the scandals during a five-minute appearance to reporters aboard the flight that took him from Rome, nor in his formal arrival remarks before Maltese officials and foreign diplomats at the airport.
With the pope listening at the airport welcoming ceremony, the president of this tiny Mediterranean island nation tackled the issue head on.
"It would be wrong in my view to try to use the reprehensible indiscretions of the few to cast a shadow on the church as a whole," President George Abela told the pontiff. "The Catholic church remains committed to safeguarding children and all vulnerable people and to seeing that there is no hiding place for those who seek to do harm."
Ten Maltese men who testified that they were sexually molested by priests at an orphanage during the 1980s and 1990s have asked to meet with Benedict so what they call a "hurtful chapter" in their lives can be closed.
The men who have spoken up say they were abused by four priests at a Catholic home for boys, alleging that if they resisted sexual advances they would be asked to leave the home, which was their only shelter.
By Saturday evening, Benedict hadn't met with any of the men, said Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi, adding that if he does see them, it will only be announced after the meeting. That's how the Vatican handled Benedict's meetings with abuse victims during pilgrimages to the United States and Australia in 2008.
Recently, the Maltese church announced it had received 84 allegations of child abuse allegedly involving 45 priests over the past decade. Local bishops have apologized for the abuse.