Pope Benedict XVI bowed to mounting pressure yesterday and met victims of clerical sex abuse for the first time since the start of the global paedophilia scandal engulfing the Roman Catholic Church.
The pontiff expressed his "shame and sorrow" at the suffering of the eight men and their families, and prayed with them during the meeting at the Vatican's Maltese embassy.
The encounter, which the Vatican appeared to have resisted at first, dominated his visit to the devout Mediterranean nation, his first overseas trip since the start of the scandal. It also marked a sober milestone on the eve of the fifth anniversary of his often troubled papacy.
At noon, a van with a police escort carrying eight men was driven into the grounds of the Apostolic Nunciature in Rabat for the closed meeting. They included Lawrence Grech, 37, a spokesman of the victims who says he was repeatedly attacked as a child at a church-run orphanage. He had called on the Pope to "recognise that these things happened in Malta, reflect about the victims' suffering and issue a formal apology".
Benedict told the eight victims, all in their 30s and 40s, that the Catholic Church would implement "effective measures" to protect young people in the future, but gave no further details.
"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," Vatican spokesman the Rev Federico Lombardi said.
"Everybody was crying," one of the men, Joseph Magro, 38, said after the meeting. "I told him my name was Joseph, and he had tears in his eyes."
He said the men received a call yesterday morning to come to the embassy and that the Pope spent a few minutes with each one of them. He said the overall encounter, which lasted about 35 minutes, was "fantastic".
"The climate was intense but very serene," the Rev Lombardi said.
The meetings came after Benedict led Mass for more than 10,000 people in front of the island's St Publius Church.
Officially, Benedict's visit was meant to commemorate the 1,950th anniversary of Saint Paul's shipwreck on Malta, but the world-wide paedophilia scandal was the centre of attention during the weekend's whistle-stop tour. News that 25 of the island's 855 priests face abuse allegations, has shocked the Maltese.
The eight men who met Benedict yesterday form part of a group of 10 who say that they were repeatedly abused by Catholic priests at the St Joseph Home orphanage in the 1980s. Three priests have been charged with sex offences.
Benedict himself has been accused by victims' groups and their lawyers of being part of the systematic cover-up by the church hierarchy of paedophile priests, in his earlier roles as an archbishop in Germany and later at the helm of the Vatican morals office. The Vatican has said it is the victim of a witch hunt.
At yesterday's Mass, on the island's largest square, Archbishop Paul Cremona of Malta, avoided any mention of the abuse scandals but said that the "Church must be humble enough to recognise the failures and sins of its members".
Benedict made no direct reference to the scandals during the Mass. He told the Maltese to cling to their faith despite the temptations of modern society.
"Many voices try to persuade us to put aside our faith in God and his Church," he warned. In particular, Benedict called on the devout Maltese to adhere to their strict interpretation of the Catholic faith. Abortion is illegal in Malta as is divorce – although an increasing number of Maltese are in favour of allowing the latter. But during his visit the Pope reiterated the Vatican's anti-divorce stance.
Malta has one priest for every 490 Catholics, compared with a global average of one in nearly 2,900, according to Church statistics.
Security in Malta was extremely tight after vandals defaced billboards promoting the papal visit. The Maltese word for "paedophile" was spray-painted on one billboard. On others, Hitler-style moustaches were daubed on images of the pontiff.
Benedict flew back to Rome yesterday where he will will today have a special lunch with cardinals to mark the fifth anniversary of his election as Pope.