Pope apologizes for clergy sexual abuse while in Australia

Sunday, July 20, 2008

SYDNEY, Australia -- Pope Benedict XVI apologized Saturday for the sexual abuse of children by Australia's Roman Catholic clergy, keeping up efforts begun in the United States to publicly atone for what he called evil acts by priests.

The apology did not satisfy representatives of the victims. They said it must be backed by Vatican orders to Australian bishops to stop alleged efforts to cover up the extent of the problem and block attempts to win compensation.

"I am deeply sorry for the pain and suffering the victims have endured and I assure them as their pastor that I, too, share in their suffering," Benedict said in Mass in Sydney's St. Mary's Cathedral.

He said he wanted "to acknowledge the shame which we have all felt" and called for those responsible to be "brought to justice."

He called the acts "evil" and a "grave betrayal of trust" and said the abuse scandal had badly damaged the church.

The German-born pope has expressed regret before about the clergy abuse scandal that has rocked the church in recent years -- notably during a U.S. visit in April when he also met privately with a small number of victims. But the language of Saturday's apology was stronger than his comments in the United States.

Ever since the pope's trip to Australia was announced two years ago, victims' groups here have been asking for apology -- something popes have historically been wary of doing.

Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said the pope added the words that he was deeply sorry to the original text given to reporters because he wanted to "personally underline" that he felt close to the victims.

There was no immediate word whether Benedict would meet with victims of clergy abuse during his Australia trip, which ends Monday.

Activists say the number of clergy abuse victims in Australia is in the thousands, though the exact figure is not known.

"It is just a drop in a bucket -- a bucket full of tears that all of us who work with victims have been sitting with for 25 to 30 years in Australia," Helen Last from clergy abuse support group In Good Faith and Associates said of the pope's apology.

Anthony Foster, the father of two Australian girls who were allegedly raped by a Catholic priest as children, has been publicly seeking a meeting with Benedict during his visit. He said he was disappointed the pope's remarks repeated the church's expressions of regret but offered no practical assistance for victims.

"What we haven't had is an unequivocal, unlimited practical response that provides for all the victims for their lifetime," he said. "The practical response needs to include both financial help ... and psychological help."

Clergy abuse activist group Broken Rites says 107 clergy of all Christian denominations have been prosecuted in Australian courts since it began tracking cases in 1993.

In the United States, more than 4,000 priests have been accused of molesting minors since 1950. The church has paid out more than $2 billion, much of it in just the last 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.

Other countries, notably Ireland, have also been rocked by the scandal at great financial cost.

The pontiff is in Australia to lead hundreds of thousands of pilgrims in the church's World Youth Day, a global celebration meant to inspire a new generation of Catholics.

About 500 people protested in the city center against the Vatican's policies opposing abortion, contraception and homosexuality, holding a rally, a march and a contest for the T-shirt that would most annoy Roman Catholics.

At the boisterous demonstration, inflated condoms floated above the crowd and some participants dressed as nuns and priests. They listened to speeches by activists supporting sex education and safe sex practices, and chanted: "The pope is wrong, put a condom on!"

The protesters confronted pilgrims at one point, and one demonstrator was escorted away by police after throwing packaged condoms at the faithful. But generally, both sides were good-natured.

Papal apologies have been few in the long history of the church, mostly confined to correcting historical errors such as condemning Galileo for maintaining that the Earth is not the center of the universe.

But Benedict has also apologized for remarks he made in 2006 that linked Islam to violence, triggering widespread Muslim outrage. His predecessor made several apologies, including asking forgiveness for the sins of Catholics through the ages, including wrongs inflicted on Jews, women and minorities.

Associated Press Writer Tanalee Smith in Sydney contributed to this report.

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