During his weekly address in St. Peter's Square on Wednesday, Pope Benedict XVI assured the crowd of thousands that the Church will be taking action against alleged sexual abusers.
The remarks were the Pope's first direct public mention of alleged sexual abuse by priests since news of widespread abuse in his native Germany broke last month, setting off a barrage of abuse and cover-up charges from around the world.
The Pope was describing a tearful meeting during his recent trip to Malta with eight men who say they were abused by clergy at an orphanage on the island. "I shared with them their suffering, and with emotion, I prayed with them," said Benedict, "assuring them of church action."
The Pope's meeting with the alleged victims took place in private on Sunday in the Apostolic Nunciature on Malta. The Pope was visiting Malta to commemorate the supposed 1950th anniversary of the shipwreck of St. Paul on the shores of the small Mediterranean island.
In a statement following the meeting on Sunday the Vatican said the Pope "was deeply moved by their stories, and expressed his shame and sorrow over what the victims and their families have suffered." Speaking to reporters afterwards, some of the men who met with the Pope said he was moved to tears by their accounts.
In the statement the Vatican also said the Pope had assured the alleged victims 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."
Sunday's meeting in Malta was the fourth time in the past two years that Pope Benedict XVI has met with alleged victims of clerical abuse.
On March 19, the Pope published a letter to the Catholics of Ireland expressing sorrow for incidents of abuse there. In the letter, the Pope wrote that he could "only share in the dismay and the sense of betrayal that so many of you have experienced on learning of these sinful and criminal acts."
The church hierarchy has been accused of covering up abuse by priests. Questions have also been raised about Benedict's role. In 1980, while Benedict was Archbishop Ratzinger of Munich, he approved the transfer to psychiatric care of a priest accused of abusing boys. Ratzinger was copied on a memo soon after that told him the priest would be returning to his pastoral duties. The priest was later charged and convicted of molesting boys.
Church observers have also noted, however, that Ratzinger has taken action against accused abusers in recent years. In 2004, while a high Vatican official, he ordered the investigation of Legion of Christ founder Father Marcial Maciel. After becoming Pope (and taking the name Benedict), he ordered Maciel to do penance and removed him from the active priesthood, though he did not defrock Maciel.
Victims associations have been demanding greater openness and action from the Church, and find the measures taken so far insufficient, including the Pope's meeting with victims.
"What the pope is doing is nothing more than window dressing," says Barbara Blaine, founder of SNAP, a network for abuse survivors. "At this time he really hasn't taken any decisive action that protects children."