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Pontiff Prays With Sex Abuse Victims
Meeting Follows Stadium Mass

By Jacqueline L. Salmon, Michelle Boorstein and Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 18, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI talked and prayed with a small group of victims of clergy sex abuse yesterday, the first publicly known meeting between a pontiff and victims since the most recent scandal erupted in Boston six years ago.

The 25-minute meeting at the Vatican Embassy put an intensely personal focus on a subject that has become an important part of the pope's Washington visit. It came after a morning Mass that Benedict celebrated for about 45,000 people at Nationals Park, the new baseball stadium in Washington.

Later, he met with interfaith leaders and Catholic educators, telling the latter not to stray from the mission of the church. The pope's visit to the nation's capital ends this morning, when he flies to New York. There he will meet with United Nations officials.

The Mass was the third time in as many days that the pope addressed the sex abuse issue, telling the silent crowd: "No words of mine could describe the pain and harm inflicted by such abuse. . . . Nor can I adequately describe the damage that has occurred within the community of the Church."

A few hours later, the pope met with at least five abuse victims, all middle-aged men and women from Boston. Benedict requested the meeting, said Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the Boston archbishop, who was present during the gathering.

"It was very positive -- healing, I think -- and very prayerful," O'Malley said, describing some of the victims as being in tears. "It was a moving experience." The meeting was not announced in advance, and the names of the victims were not made public.

Each of the victims had a brief private conversation with the pope. Afterward, O'Malley gave Benedict a list of more than 1,000 people victimized over the years in the Boston archdiocese and asked the pope to pray for them.

National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" quoted Bernie McDaid, a victim who attended the meeting, as having told Benedict: "Holy Father, I want you to know you have a cancer in your flock and you need to correct that, and I hope you do. You need to do more."

Gary M. Bergeron, 45, a sex abuse victim from Boston who was not included in the meeting, welcomed it. "This is the first time in seven years that the leader of the Catholic Church has come out saying the behavior of the past is not acceptable anymore," he said.

Benedict's predecessor, Pope John Paul II, never met with sex abuse victims. Bergeron and a small group of Boston area victims flew to Rome in March 2003 in an effort to see John Paul II. They knocked on doors for five days and eventually met with an official from the Vatican secretary of state's office. But they failed in their effort to talk with the pope.

Since 1950, more than 5,000 U.S. priests have been accused of abusing about 12,000 children, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The church has spent about $2 billion on legal claims.

While Benedict was planning his trip, some U.S. cardinals urged him to include a meeting with victims, according to Bishop Gregory M. Aymond of Austin, chairman of the U.S. bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse. Other parties had urged him to visit Boston, the epicenter of the scandal.

At Catholic University in Northeast Washington, the pope warned educators yesterday against a betrayal of their purpose. He told them that "any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university's identity and mission."

At the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, Benedict addressed 200 leaders of five other faiths, saying: "In our attempt to discover points of commonality, perhaps we have shied away from the responsibility to discuss our differences with calmness and clarity. While always uniting our hearts and minds in the call for peace, we must also listen attentively to the voice of truth."

The pope also offered Passover greetings to members of the Jewish community "in a spirit of openness to the real possibilities of cooperation which we see before us as we contemplate the urgent needs of our world and as we look with compassion upon the sufferings of millions of our brothers and sisters everywhere. Naturally, our shared hope for peace in the world embraces the Middle East and the Holy Land in particular."

During the Mass, the 81-year-old pontiff, on a gold and white stage dominated by a 14-foot crucifix, preached a message intended to buoy his wandering U.S. flock while acknowledging the pain suffered by some of the more vulnerable members of American society. He spoke of the "injustices endured by the Native American peoples and by those brought here forcibly from Africa as slaves."

Yet "hope, hope for the future, is very much a part of the American character," he said.

At the Mass, Angela Clare Davis, 43, an office manager from Charlestown, W.Va., said, "I can die now." She won a ticket to the Mass in a church raffle. "This is the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me," she said. "I am going to receive the Eucharist consecrated by the Holy Father's hands."

Papal experts have said Benedict does not like stadium Masses as he prefers to worship in a liturgically sacred space whenever possible. Nationals Park, however, had been turned into a hybrid ballfield-sanctuary. The service took place across the outfield, with the towering stage in center field and white-robed clergy in far right and left fields. Much of the new grass was covered with white tiling to protect it from the hundreds of people seated in chairs facing the pope.

The crowd was uncharacteristically still for a ballpark gathering. Few of the thousands of worshipers moved during the homily delivered in Benedict's heavily accented but calming voice. People listened quietly until the end, when Benedict broke out into a short message in Spanish, immediately prompting a whoop and shouts of "Viva!"

The scene in the hours before the Mass was celebratory and upbeat, not unlike a World Series game. Lines were huge, with more than 50 waiting at most women's restrooms. There were also crowds at stands that sold rosary rings, postcards, yellow golf shirts with Benedict's insignia, T-shirts with the message "The one who has hope lives differently" and baseball hats with the words "Christ our Hope."

Security was extremely tight, creating long lines at the entrances. In addition to passing through 25 metal detectors, worshipers were scanned with a wand, and their bags were searched.

Sonia Bungcayao and her niece Helen Ford bought rosary rings, prayer cards and bumper stickers to give to friends. They hope to have them blessed by priests.

"It's holy, you know?" said Bungcayao, who traveled from her home near Chicago to attend the Mass. "I might not see him [the pope] again. He might not come to the U.S. again. This is our last chance."

The super-size service required super-size accommodations. Three hundred deacons were stationed around the stadium so that Communion could be offered to everyone within 20 minutes.

Before Mass, hundreds waited in line for the sacrament of penance under white tents inside the ballpark. With pairs of chairs as confessionals, 65 priests in ivory robes leaned forward, listening to the penitents' sins, while sisters from the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Martara, baseball caps over their waist-length blue veils, corralled people into lines.

"I'm due," said Rob Donovan, a Gettysburg College senior, who acknowledged that it was his first confession in two years. "This is an event where you want to return to your faith, and it's time to take my faith a little more seriously."

As 10 a.m. and the start of the Mass drew near, dozens were still in line, so priests began hearing confessions under the stairs and by the soda machines.

Staff writer Petula Dvorak and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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