By Philip Pullella
Monday, April 19, 2010; A09
VALLETTA, MALTA -- Pope Benedict XVI prayed and cried with eight victims of sexual abuse by priests on Sunday and promised that the church is doing "all in its power" to bring the guilty to justice and protect the young.
"It was emotional. Everybody cried," Lawrence Grech, 37, who was victimized as a child, said after the private meeting following the pope's Mass on the second and last day of his visit to Malta.
The meeting, announced only after it had finished, was Benedict's first such gesture since a new wave of sexual abuse scandals swept over Roman Catholicism in recent months. He had previously met victims in the United States and Australia.
"He prayed with them and assured them that the Church is doing, and will continue to do, all in its power to investigate allegations, to bring to justice those responsible for abuse and to implement effective measures designed to safeguard young people in the future," a Vatican statement on the meeting said.
It was one of the clearest statements yet from the Vatican that it wants local bishops to cooperate with civil authorities in prosecuting priests who abused children.
"He was deeply moved by their stories and expressed his shame and sorrow over what victims and their families have suffered," it said, adding that the pontiff hopes their pain will heal.
A spokesman said the pope met with them as a group and then spoke to each individually before they prayed together.
"I lost my faith in the last 20 years," Grech, 37, said after the meeting. "I told him, 'You can fill up the emptiness, fill up what the priests took from me when I was young.' "
"This experience is going to change my life. Now I can go to my daughter and say, 'I believe,' " he said, breaking into tears.
The U.S.-based support group SNAP -- Survivors' Network of Those Abused by Priests -- criticized the Vatican for saying it is doing all in its power against sexual abuse.
"It's easy to promise; it's hard to deliver, especially in a rigid, ancient, secretive all-male monarchy," said spokesman Peter Isely. "Not a single adult should feel relieved until strong steps are actually taken, not promised, that will prevent future child sex crimes and coverups."
The pope's trip to Malta has been overshadowed by the global church sex-abuse crisis. Earlier, at an open-air Mass, he heard the island's leading bishop say the Catholic Church had to be humble enough to recognize its failures.
So far on this trip, Benedict has made no direct public reference to the worldwide crisis.