TORONTO -- Speaking publicly on the scandal for the first time, Pope John Paul II told young Catholics on Sunday that sexual abuse of children by priests "fills us all with a deep sense of sadness and shame," but he urged them to support the vast majority of priests who do good.
The frail, 82-year-old pope spoke clearly and at times forcefully during the three-hour Mass for World Youth Day, faltering only at the end when he grew visibly tired, slurred some words and lost his place in his text.
He told the estimated 800,000 pilgrims at a soggy, muddy outdoor Mass that young believers should not let the actions of a few sway their faith.
"If you love Jesus, love the Church. Do not be discouraged by the sins and failings of some of her members," John Paul said.
"The harm done by some priests and religious to the young and vulnerable fills us all with a deep sense of sadness and shame," he said.
"But," he said, emphasizing that word, "think of the vast majority of dedicated priests and religious whose only wish is to serve and do good."
"Be close to them and support them," the pontiff said to cheers from the vast crowd, which was basking in sunshine after spending all night outside and getting drenched by morning rainstorms.
Since January, the Catholic Church in the United States has been engulfed by sexual abuse accusations, and recent cases have cropped up in Germany, Ireland and the pope's native Poland. Canada faced a sex abuse scandal in the 1990s.
About 300 of the 46,000 priests in the United States have been taken off duty this year because of sex abuse allegations.
David Clohessy, U.S. national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, called the pope's comments a "missed opportunity," saying they seemed to focus more on suffering priests than victims of clerical abuse.
"A few words of apology from someone of his stature could help perhaps hundreds of people to feel some sense of healing," he said.
John Paul's comments came as Canadian news media reported the arrests last week of two New Jersey priests in a police sting involving a gay prostitution ring in Montreal. A spokesman for the Newark, N.J., diocese said both men resigned from their duties after their arrests.
With his condemnation of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in his earlier speeches and his mention of the sex abuse scandal Sunday, the pope addressed two of the major concerns of American Catholics.
Prior to Sunday, his only statements since the sex abuse scandals erupted in the Boston archdiocese in January had been a pre-Easter letter to priests and a speech to cardinals summoned to the Vatican in April.
During the week of World Youth Day activities preceding Sunday's closing Mass, some pilgrims said they wanted John Paul to discuss the sexual abuse issue to ease their concerns and questions about the negative publicity and what it meant for the church.