Pope Benedict XVI prayed with tearful victims of clergy sex abuse in a chapel Thursday, an extraordinary gesture from a pontiff who has made atoning for the great shame of the U.S. church the cornerstone of his first papal trip to America.
Benedict's third day in the U.S. began with a packed open-air Mass celebrated in 10 languages at a baseball stadium, and it included a speech to Roman Catholic college and university presidents.
But the real drama happened privately, in the chapel of the papal embassy between events.
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, a papal spokesman, said that Benedict and Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley met with a group of five or six clergy sex abuse victims for about 25 minutes, offering them encouragement and hope.
"They prayed together. Also, each of them had their own individual time with the Holy Father," Lombardi said. "Some were in tears."
Reaching out to victims
Well over 4,000 priests have been accused of molesting minors in the U.S. 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 because of abuse costs.
Expected to address the problem only once during his six-day trip — at a Mass with priests in New York City on Saturday — Benedict has instead returned to the issue repeatedly, beginning in a news conference on the flight from Rome to the U.S.
He has called the crisis a cause of "deep shame," pledged to keep pedophiles out of the priesthood and decried the "enormous pain" that communities have suffered from such "gravely immoral behavior" by priests.
On Wednesday, he told bishops the problem has sometimes been very "badly handled" and said it was their God-given duty to heal the wounds caused by abuse. He asked each parishioner at Mass on Thursday "to do what you can to foster healing and reconciliation, and to assist those who have been hurt."
Thursday afternoon's session went a step further. Lombardi said it was believed to be the first-ever such session between a pope and abuse victims.
Gary Bergeron, an outspoken abuse survivor from Boston who was not in the meeting, failed in his attempt to meet with Pope John Paul II, Benedict's predecessor, when he spent a week at the Vatican a few years ago.
He called Thursday's meeting "a long-sought-for step in the right direction."
"The Catholic Church is partly based on symbolism, and I think the symbolism had he not met with survivors would have been horrendous," the 45-year-old Bergeron said.
Some victims had called on Benedict to travel to Boston since it has been the epicenter of the problem. Instead, O'Malley presented the pope with a notebook listing the names victims of sexual abuse from the Boston Archdiocese. There were more than 1,000 names, Lombardi said.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests called the meeting "a positive first step on a very long road." The group, which has been fiercely critical of the church, said it hopes the meeting will lead to reform in how church leaders respond to abuse claims.
The session came just hours after the pope celebrated the first public Mass of his U.S. pilgrimage.
More than 45,000 people filled Nationals Park on a clear spring day as the pope led the service from an altar erected in centerfield.