WASHINGTON – For 25 remarkable minutes, the shepherd of the world's 1 billion Catholics met with a handful of victims in the worst scandal to ever tarnish the U.S. church.
One man, abused as an altar boy, said he placed his hand over Pope Benedict XVI's heart as he pleaded with him to fix the problem of sexual abuse of minors.
The pontiff apologized to his guests for not being perfectly fluent in English, and "for everything," according to another victim.
Plans for the secret meeting were kept quiet. But two Boston-area victims of abuse shared details of the meeting in interviews late Thursday with The Associated Press.
Though Benedict had been expected to address clergy sexual abuse in his visit to the U.S., the volume and frankness of his remarks over the first half of his six-day pilgrimage have been startling.
Benedict expressed shame and a determination to do better in a talk with U.S. bishops on the plane ride over, and again Thursday at a giant open-air Mass.
The meeting that took place Thursday afternoon between a Mass at Nationals Park and an address to Catholic educators had long been in the works, but wasn't on the pope's official schedule.
Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston had high hopes Benedict would accept his invitation to visit his archdiocese to mark its 200th anniversary. When that didn't work out, O'Malley kept in touch with Archbishop Pietro Sambi, who as papal nuncio represents the Vatican in the U.S., about bringing Benedict and victims together during the trip, said the Rev. John Connolly, a special assistant to O'Malley.
"The desire to do this was definitely from the Holy Father," Connolly said.
The pope ultimately asked O'Malley to invite a small group of victims who were "both open to meeting him and would derive a spiritual benefit," Connolly said.
He found two good candidates in Bernie McDaid and Olan Horne, who were molested by priests when they were boys growing up in the Boston area.
Both men were angry at the church, but welcomed the opportunity to meet with church officials as the crisis mushroomed. The issue has dominated American Catholic life for much of this decade, starting in 2002 in Boston.
McDaid attended a meeting in which then-Boston Archbishop Cardinal Bernard Law asked for forgiveness, and traveled to Rome to meet with church officials. In 2006, Horne spoke of hope and love as O'Malley began a series of masses and services meant to bind up wounds.
The two men got to know each other; eventually their stories were portrayed in a 2005 Showtime film, "Our Fathers."
About three weeks ago over dinner, Boston church officials asked McDaid whether he would meet with Benedict if an anticipated meeting with victims came together.
"I said, 'Of course,"' McDaid said.
On Thursday morning, McDaid did something he never does. He went to Mass.
He went to accompany his mother. But when McDaid heard Benedict apologize for the sex abuse crisis, "It took me totally by surprise. It was so heartfelt and emotional, I cried."
Afterward, he found himself in a car with a police escort, barreling through Washington red lights to the Vatican residence on Embassy Row, where Benedict was staying.
There, he joined a handful of other victims in pews in the nunciature's private chapel.
When Benedict arrived, he prayed and blessed the group, which included O'Malley and Sambi.
Horne said Benedict apologized for his English, but then assured them that he had the words he wanted to express.
"He stood there feet from us, and you could tell he was heavy, heavy with responsibility," Horne said. "He looked at us deeply. You could see he searched for words, that he was thinking."
Each victim was invited to spend a few minutes talking with Benedict. McDaid went first.
He shook the pope's hand and told him that as an altar boy he had been abused by a priest in the sacristy of his parish.
"I said, 'Holy Father, you need to know you have a cancer in your flock and I hope you will do something for this problem; you have to fix this,"' McDaid said.
McDaid said that at that moment, he put his hand on the 81-year-old pontiff's heart.
"He looked down at the floor and back at me, like, 'I know what you mean,' McDaid said. "He took it in emotionally. We looked eye to eye."
Horne went second. Like McDaid, Horne hadn't been to Mass in many years. None of his children have received the sacraments that define Catholic identity.
He too had seized the opportunity to meet Benedict, but was not convinced it would happen.
"Till I saw his little red shoes," Horne said, "I knew it could go sideways."
Horne said he felt a heavy responsibility to other victims, but knew he could only speak for himself.
"There was an opportunity for an unscripted, unfiltered opportunity face to face," he said.
When he headed the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Benedict reviewed the files containing horrific charges against priests in the United States. But Horne said what struck him was Benedict's sincerity, warmth and sense of understanding that reading reports cannot summon.
Horne told the pope it was time to move beyond anger and embrace hope.
"He thanked me for having the courage, and (said) that he was with us on this path. I asked him to embrace us. He said — and I can't recall the exact words — 'I think I have begun to."'
"There was a sense we had begun the journey."