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Pope meets Australian victims of clergy sex abuse
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict met four Australian victims of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy on Monday at a private Mass, an unscheduled meeting that underlined his weekend public apology and condemnation of sexual abuse in the Church.
Sexual abuse by Catholic clergy has shadowed the pope's visit to Sydney, with emotional pleas by victims and their families for the pope to ensure that the Church deals openly with the issue.
"As an expression of his ongoing pastoral concern for those who have been abused by members of the clergy, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI today celebrated Mass with a representative group of victims," the Vatican said in a statement.
The private Mass was held in a chapel at St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney, only hours before the 81-year-old pontiff was due to leave Australia for Rome.
"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," said the Vatican.
"Through this paternal gesture, the Holy Father wished to demonstrate again his deep concern for all those who have suffered sexual abuse."
Benedict apologised on Saturday for clergy sexual abuse in Australia, condemning it as "evil" and saying abusers should be brought to justice.
The comments are believed to be the first time the pope has specifically apologised for sexual abuse by clergy and stated clearly that abusers should be brought to justice.
There have been 107 convictions for sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in Australia, but victims groups say there may be thousands of cases as very few make it to court.
Broken Rites, which represents victims in Australia, was critical of the papal meeting, saying the pontiff met only carefully selected victims.
"I'm afraid that what they've done is selected victims who have agreed with what the church's policies are. They've not been prepared to face someone who disagrees," said Broken Rites president Chris MacIsaac.
"Victims who are not happy have the right to have a say as well. People who have been locked out by the church in the past continue to be locked out," she said.
Abuse victims in Australia had been calling on the pope to issue a public apology, during his visit to Sydney for World Youth Day, and to also implement an open and accountable system of investigating abuse claims. They say the Catholic Church in Australia continues to try and cover-up abuse.
The Church reopened a 25-year-old abuse case in Australia only days before the pontiff arrived.
The pope confronted sexual abuse in the Church in the United States during a visit to Washington in April, meeting victims and vowing to keep paedophiles out of the priesthood.
But the pope's words in Australia were stronger than those he used in the United States, where the biggest of the scandals broke in 2002 and where Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law resigned in disgrace that year.
"As he did in the United States, the pope wanted to meet some victims as a concrete gesture to express the feelings he has already shown in his comments about the drama of sexual abuse," said chief Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi.
Lombardi said the four victims were accompanied by their supporters and a priest who had followed their cases.
At the end of the Mass, the pope spoke to each victim.
"The pope spoke words of understanding and comfort," said Lombardi, describing the encounter as taking place in a climate of "respect, spirituality and intense emotion".
Pope Benedict was in Australia for World Youth Day, the Catholic Church's largest youth festival, attracting some 400,000 pilgrims from around the world.
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