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Pope meets with victims of clergy sex abuse

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VICTOR L. SIMPSON | April 17, 2008 06:06 PM EST | AP

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WASHINGTON — Pope Benedict XVI, after urging bishops, priests and parishioners to heal the wounds caused by the clergy sex abuse scandal, talked and prayed privately with survivors Thursday in what was believed to be a first-ever meeting between a pontiff and abuse victims.

The Rev. Federico Lombardi, a papal spokesman, said that Benedict and Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley met with a group of five or six victims for about 25 minutes in the chapel of the papal embassy, offering them encouragement and hope.

Lombardi said the pope told the survivors he would pray for them, their families and all victims of clergy sex abuse. Each of the victims spent a few minutes with Benedict privately. Some were in tears during the meeting, Lombardi said.

Benedict has spoken repeatedly about the abuse crisis during his first trip to the United States as pope.

He called the crisis a cause of "deep shame," pledged to keep pedophiles out of the priesthood and decried the "enormous pain" that communities have suffered from such "gravely immoral behavior" by priest.

He told the nation's bishops that the crisis was "sometimes very badly handled," and said they must reach out with love and compassion to victims. At an open air Mass on Thursday at Nationals Park, he also urged Catholic parishioners to do what they can to reach out to victims.

Thousands of priests have been accused of molesting minors in the U.S. since 1950 and the church has paid out more than $2 billion, much of it in just the last six years, when the case of a serial molester in Boston gained national attention and prompted many victims to step forward.

Then-Boston Archbishop Bernard Law was forced to step down when it became apparent that he had allowed accused priests to be shuffled from parish-to-parish.

Gary Bergeron, an outspoken survivor of clergy sex abuse from Boston who was not in Thursday's session, failed in his attempt to meet with Pope John Paul II, Benedict's predecessor, when he spent a week at the Vatican a few years ago.

He called Thursday's meeting "a long-sought-for step in the right direction."

"The Catholic Church is partly based on symbolism, and I think the symbolism had he not met with survivors would have been horrendous," the 45-year-old Bergeron said.

In the meeting, O'Malley presented Benedict with a notebook listing the names victims of sexual abuse from the Boston Archdiocese. There were more than 1,000 names.