VALLETTA, Malta — With tears in his eyes, Pope Benedict XVI made his most personal gesture yet to respond to the clerical sex abuse scandal Sunday, 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 the 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 eight Maltese men who say they were abused by four priests when they were boys living at a Catholic orphanage. During the meeting, 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 Benedict's two-day trip to this largely Roman Catholic island — marked the first time Benedict had met with abuse victims since the worldwide clerical abuse scandal engulfed the Vatican 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 that 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.
The main U.S. victims group, Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said it was easy for Benedict to make promises about taking action to protect children.
"Not a single adult should feel relieved until strong steps are actually taken, not promised, that will prevent future child sex crimes and coverups," Peter Isely, the group's Midwest director, said.
Magro said the men, in their 30s and 40s, received a call Sunday morning to come to the embassy and that the pope spent a few minutes with each of them. He said the overall encounter, which lasted about 35 minutes, was "fantastic."
Lawrence Grech, 37, 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 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."
Grech is one of 10 men who in 2003 filed a criminal lawsuit against four priests the men say molested them when they were growing up in an orphanage in Malta. He and others have complained that the Malta diocese has been investigating the case for seven years and has not yet determined how to proceed against the priests. Three are still working as priests in Malta and one is now in Italy, Grech said.
Benedict met the victims in the chapel of the Apostolic Nunciature, far from the eyes of the media. Two local bishops and several members of the papal entourage were also present. The climate was "very intense but very serene," the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said in a news conference afterward.
It was Benedict's fourth such meeting. He also met with abuse victims in visits to the United States and Australia in 2008, and in Rome last year.
In the news conference on Sunday, Lombardi did not elaborate on the measures mentioned in the statement and said the meeting was a "symbolic" event more than a "legal" one. Lombardi said he did not think the visit would set a precedent for Benedict to meet with victims in every country he travels.
The Vatican statement said that the pope "prayed that all the victims of abuse would experience healing and reconciliation, enabling them to move forward with renewed hope."
Isely called it "astonishing" that Benedict said the Vatican was doing "all in its power" to investigate allegations.
"It hurts and endangers kids when adults confuse inaction with action and recklessness with effectiveness," he said. "It's wrong, when thousands are being molested, to just make vague promises."
Benedict's overnight trip to Malta — originally scheduled to commemorate the 1,950th anniversary of St. Paul's shipwreck and to underscore the Christian roots of Europe and the challenge of illegal immigration — had been overshadowed by expectations that he would make a strong gesture to repair the damage of the scandal.
Benedict has been accused by victims groups and their lawyers of being part of a systematic practice of coverup by church hierarchy for pedophile priests, in his earlier roles as an archbishop in Germany and later at the helm of the Vatican morals office.
BishopAccountability.org, a U.S.-based Web site that tracks abuse, called on Benedict to follow up his words with actions.
"The pope must follow the meeting in Malta by accounting fully for his own role in the crisis and by disciplining complicit officials," the group said in a statement. "Otherwise, it will be evident that he was exploiting the goodwill of the survivors in Malta to improve his image."
Benedict made no direct reference to the scandals during a Mass Sunday morning. He told Maltese to cling to their faith despite the temptations of modern society.
"Many voices try to persuade us to put aside our faith in God and his church," he warned.
Information from the New York Times was used in this report.