TORONTO – Urging Catholic youth to stand by the vast majority of good priests, Pope John Paul II on Sunday admitted that the Roman Catholic Church has "a deep sense of sadness and shame" over the clerical-sex-abuse scandal casting a shadow over North America.
"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 comments, to a rainy World Youth Day Mass in Toronto, were in his first speech to the public on the matter this year, in front of an estimated 800,000 people and Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien.
It was an early stop on the ailing pontiff's 11-day tour of the Western Hemisphere.
While some Catholics were satisfied with the Pope's handling of the matter, others said it fell far short of the apology that the Church ought to make.
Since January, the Catholic Church in the United States has been engulfed by sexual-abuse accusations against priests, and recent cases have cropped up in Germany, Ireland and the pope's native Poland.
"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, by far, most church figures are people "whose only wish is to serve and do good."
"Be close to them and support them," the pontiff said.
Even as he pleaded for support for priests, news came of 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.
Before Sunday, the Pope's only statements since scandal 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.
Some pilgrims said they were glad the Pope addressed the issue, which has been gnawing at many Catholics' sense of faith.
"I think it was a good thing he mentioned it," Janelle Morin, 16, said during communion. "The pope has really done all he could on the issue. Catholicism is founded on principles of honesty and truth. I have faith in the church. I know the bishops are protective and wouldn't do anything to intentionally harm us."
But David Clohessy, U.S. national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, called the comments a "missed opportunity."
"A few words of apology from someone of his stature could help perhaps hundreds of people to feel some sense of healing," Clohessy said, adding that the pontiff's comments seemed to focus more on suffering priests than on clerical sex abuse victims.
"There's not one word about victims. Not one," Clohessy said in a phone interview from his Missouri home. "I would have hoped he would have encouraged young people to believe, listen to and support the victims as well as support the priests."
During a 2-hour prayer service at the vigil Saturday night, the 82-year-old pontiff said the new millennium opened with two contrasting scenarios: the sight of pilgrims in Rome for the Holy Year, and the "terrible terrorist attack on New York, an image that is sort of an icon of a world in which hostility and hatred seem to prevail."
His voice strong despite symptoms of Parkinson's disease and other health problems, John Paul urged young people to be the builders of a "civilization of love" and learn "to build brick by brick, the city of God within the city of man."
John Paul began his 11-day trip, which goes on to Guatemala and Mexico, by determinedly walking with a cane, an aide holding his left arm, at initial appearances in Canada. On Saturday night and again at Sunday's Mass, he came on stage on a cart pushed by aides.
"You are young and the pope is old, 82. It's not the same thing as 22 or 23," he said at one point, dropping a comment in his prepared text that referred to his being "a bit tired."
More than 200,000 young Catholics from 170 nations registered for this year's World Youth Day, a decline from previous years. The pope inaugurated the event in 1985 as a way to invigorate devotion among the young.
There was no lack of enthusiasm among the multitudes who walked for miles to the vigil in midday summer heat Saturday, many huddling under overpasses and in the shade of trucks to avoid the sun. Some welcomed water sprayed on them by people on highway bridges, and paramedics on golf carts cruised alongside to assist those overcome by the high humidity and temperatures.
"You feel the world is coming all together for the same reason," said 14-year-old Annalynn David of Sacramento, Calif.
Lisa Hieronynus, 27, of New York City said the huge numbers bolstered the faith of those gathering here as the Roman Catholic church tries to emerge from the sex-abuse scandals in the United States.
"It's not every day that you get to experience this kind of solidarity," she said. "A lot of people were shaken and a lot of people woke up. This sort of event will help the pope in the long run."
The pope files to Guatemala on Monday, then will go to Mexico to complete the 97th of his nearly quarter-century papacy. While aides had expressed concern that the trip would be too much for his declining health, the pope has surprised all by looking stronger and speaking more clearly than in recent months.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.