Pope Benedict XVI met privately on Monday with Australians who were sexually abused as children by priests, ending a pilgrimage to the country with a gesture of contrition and concern over a scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic church.
The pontiff held prayers and spoke with four representatives of abuse victims — two men and two women — in the last hours of his nine-day visit to Australia for the church's global youth festival.
The abuse scandal was a sour undertone to the trip for World Youth Day, which is supposed to be a celebration of faith that inspires a new generation.
On Saturday, Benedict delivered a forthright apology for the scandal, saying he was "deeply sorry" for the victims' suffering. But victims said this was not enough, and demanded that Benedict do more to provide financial compensation and psychological help for them.
The Vatican did not give details of the conversations between the pope and the victims he met for about one hour on Monday "as an expression of his ongoing pastoral concern for those who have been abused by members of the church."
"He listened to their stories and offered them consolation," a Vatican statement said. "Assuring them of his spiritual closeness he promised to continue to pray for them, their families and all victims.
"Through this paternal gesture, the holy father wished to demonstrate again his deep concern for all victims of sexual abuse," it said.
Similiar meeting in U.S.
The pope, who has made trying to repair damage caused by the scandal one of the themes of his papacy, held a similar meeting with clergy abuse victims in the United States during a visit there in April.
Australian media gave prominent attention to Benedict's apology Saturday for the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy, headlining his words "I Am Deeply Sorry."
He said he wanted "to acknowledge the shame which we have all felt" and called for those responsible to be "brought to justice." The acts were "evil" and a "grave betrayal of trust," he said.
Benedict's pilgrimage to Australia was the furthest journey yet of his three-year papacy, and one intended to inspire a new generation of faithful while trying to overcome the dark chapter for his church from the sex abuse scandal.
Finding a path in 'spiritual desert'
Summing up his message, Benedict told young pilgrims at a Mass on Sunday that a "spiritual desert" was spreading throughout the world and challenged them to shed the greed and cynicism of their time to create a new age of hope.
The Vatican said some 350,000 faithful from almost 170 countries packed the Randwick race track — many of them camping out in sleeping bags in the mild chill of the Australian winter — for the outdoor Mass. Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said it was Sydney's biggest crowd since the Olympic Games in 2000.
Asked how the 81-year-old pope fared with the audience at the World Youth Day event — alternately football-stadium boisterous or chapel quiet depending on the occasion — Lombardi said Benedict's speeches were "positive, constructive, never polemical."
Benedict touched on themes for the universal church as well as Australia in particular — global warming and the need for the world to change its lifestyles, relations with non-Roman Catholics, and the struggle here to rejuvenate a crisis-battered Church. Pilgrims from the South Pacific faced rising oceans that could swallow their homes, and Australia is parched by a harsh drought, the pope said.
The message from Sunday's Mass, held under threatening skies, was that it was up to young Christians to save mankind from "an interior emptiness, an unnamed fear, a quiet sense of despair" that was being fueled by materialism and greed.
Benedict urged the young Christians to create "a new age in which hope liberates us from the shallowness, apathy and self-absorption which deadens our souls and poisons our relationships."
Benedict acknowledged on his way to Australia that the Church in the West was "in crisis" because people no longer see the need for God. But he insisted it was not in decline. "I am an optimist" about its future, he said.