VATICAN CITY — The Vatican changed its tone and sought to reach out to victims of the sex abuse scandal rocking the Catholic Church, saying Friday that Pope Benedict XVI is willing to meet with them and take part in the church's healing process.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, softened its recent attacks on the media, which the church has accused of mounting a hate campaign against the pope.
Lombardi defended Benedict as a pastor worthy of respect and support in the face of the "unfounded" allegations. But he also focused on the victim's needs.
In comments to Vatican Radio, Lombardi said many victims are looking not for financial compensation but for moral help, countering insinuations by some in the church that the accusations were part of attempts to win large settlements.
"For many people the road to profound healing is only just beginning, and for others it has yet to start," said Lombardi. "In the context of this concern for victims, the pope has written of his readiness to hold new meetings with them, thus sharing in the journey of the entire ecclesial community."
Benedict has already met with abuse victims during trips to the United States and Australia in 2008 and with Canadians at the Vatican the following year.
In a letter to the Irish in which he apologized for decades of unchecked child abuse by priests, nuns and other clerics, the pontiff said he was sorry for the suffering of the victims. He told the victims, "I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured."
But the pope himself has come under fire for the handling of cases that date to his tenure as archbishop of Munich and as a Vatican cardinal in charge of the office dealing with abuse cases. And the Vatican's offer of new meetings was dismissed by one group of abuse victims as a meaningless symbol.
"Any meeting the pope may have with victims helps him look good while doing nothing noteworthy," said Barbara Dorris, the outreach director of US-based victim lobby SNAP.
"Kids need and deserve immediate protection and dramatic reform, not public relations ploys and photo ops. They need substance, not symbols," she said.
Sex abuse allegations have swept across Europe in recent weeks, including in Benedict's native Germany.
The Vatican has rejected accusations that the church, including the pope, engaged in a cover-up, and has blamed the media for what it calls a smear campaign against the pontiff and his advisers.
Lombardi renewed some of that rhetoric on Friday, saying the media have failed to portray the pervasiveness of child sex abuse in modern society and the way the church's experience can be useful to society at large.
He praised the pope's patience in facing up to "the steady trickle of partial and alleged 'revelations' that seek to damage his own credibility and that of other people or institutions in the church."
But Lombardi also said that transparency and rigor are urgently needed to show that the church is run in a wise and just manner. He maintained that proper selection and training of prospective priests will be crucial in preventing further abuse, and he insisted that the church keep carrying out canon trials "decisively and truthfully" and cooperate with civil authorities.
"Only in this way can we hope effectively to rebuild a climate of justice and complete trust in the ecclesiastical institution," Lombardi said.
He did not address a long-standing church practice of transferring priests involved in sexual abuse cases to other parishes, which has come under fierce criticism and is seen as perpetuating the risk of abuse.