April 18, 2010 — -- In the first gesture of its kind since fresh accusations of sexual abuse by priests emerged, Pope Benedict XVI met with purported abuse victims today in the deeply Catholic nation of Malta.
The meeting with eight men who say they were abused by priests when they were children in a Maltese orphanage lasted approximately 35 minutes and was held away from the glare of the media. It was held in the building where the pope stayed while in Malta and took place following a large public Sunday mass.
Lawrence Grech, 37, was among the group and said it was an emotional moment when he shared his painful story with the Holy Father.
"I said, 'Pope, you pray for me, and I hope you feel the emptiness which another priest like you took from me for at least 25 years, because I lost faith,'" Grech said.
Grech is among 10 victims who filed criminal complaints against four priests of the orphanage seven years ago. The proceedings are ongoing, and three of the accused priests are still working in Malta.
The Vatican issued a statement following the meeting, saying, "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 measure designed to safeguard young people in the future."
Critics, including groups that represent abuse victims, say the church's apologies cannot replace criminal prosecutions of predatory priests.
"What the pope is doing is nothing more than window dressing," said Barbara Blaine, founder of SNAP, or the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "At this time he really hasn't taken any decisive action that protects children in the church across the globe. We don't understand why he won't do this, except that it seems as though he wants to continue to protect the reputation of the church and these predator priests, rather than the innocence of the children."
Alleged Former Victim of Priest Sexual Abuse in Malta: The Pope 'Listened to Us'
But outside Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church in New York City today, some parishioners said the pope's gesture was a step in the right direction.
"I think that it shows that the pope is reaching out to those victims so the church can take steps forward so this never happens again," Josh Rogan said.
"It's a horrible thing, it's an abomination," McNeil Robinson said. "Everyone knows that, but I think the Holy Father is doing everything in his power to address it."
Other says more could still be done to address the crimes.
"I really feel that it's a great start," Jennifer Jones said. "But they should continue to deal with it instead of sweep things under the rug.
The meeting was described as "very intense, but serene," and some of the victims found having the ears of the pope helped sooth a lifetime of hurt.
"He listened to us," Grech said, from Malta. "He told me, 'I am very proud [of you] and I pray for you to have the courage to tell your story.'"
Another alleged victim, Joseph Magro, said, "It was really fantastic, we were waiting for this. …. [The pope] had tears in his eyes."
Pope Benedict has met with victims of sexual abuse during previous trips to the United States and Australia, but had not done so since the most recent revelations of abuse emerged in the last couple months.
He has seldom publicly addressed the controversy, but on Saturday made a statement to reporters, saying, "I know Malta loves Christ and his church that is his body and knows that even if this body is wounded by our sins, God still loves this church and his gospel is the true force that purifies and heals."
The pope ended his trip to Malta with a well-orchestrated rally held for the country's youth.
With reporting from ABC News' Phoebe Natanson, in Malta, and The Associated Press.