Pope Privately Meets Clergy Abuse Victims in Australia

Pope Benedict XVI met privately on Monday with Australians who were sexually abused as children by priests, in 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 a nine-day visit to Australia for the church's global youth festival.

The abuse scandal was a sour undertone to the trip. On Saturday, Benedict delivered a forthright apology for the scandal, saying he was "deeply sorry" for the victims' suffering.

But victims' supporters said this was not enough, and have demanded Benedict to 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.

"In an expression of his ongoing pastoral concern for those who have been abused by members of the church, his holiness celebrated mass with a representative group of victims," the Vatican said in a statement.

"He listened to their stories and offered them consolation. 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.

The pope, who has made repairing damage caused by the scandal one of the themes that defines his papacy, held a similar meeting with clergy abuse victims in the United States during a visit there in April.

The meeting and Mass in Sydney took place between 7:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. at the residence in Sydney's St. Mary's Cathedral, where Benedict stayed for five nights during the World Youth Day festival that drew more than 200,000 pilgrims to the city. The pope's plane was due to leave Australia for Rome later Monday.

Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said the pope waited until the end of his visit to Australia to meet victims because he wanted to keep the abuse issue separate from World Youth Day, a six-day series of celebratory events designed to inspire a new generation of Christians.

In a final Mass Sunday under threatening skies, Benedict urged young Christians to be agents of change because "the world needs renewal."

"In so many of our societies, side by side with material prosperity, a spiritual desert is spreading: an interior emptiness, an unnamed fear, a quiet sense of despair," the pontiff said.

The pope said it was up to a new generation of Christians to build a world in "which God's gift of life is welcomed, respected and cherished — not rejected, feared as a threat and destroyed."

The Vatican said some 350,000 faithful from almost 170 countries packed the Randwick race track for the final mass Sunday — many of them camping out in sleeping bags in the mild chill of the Australian winter — as well as a global television audience.

Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said it was Sydney's biggest crowd since the Olympic Games in 2000.