Pope Benedict XVI prayed with tearful victims of clergy sex abuse in a chapel, an extraordinary gesture from a pontiff who has made atoning for the great shame of the U.S. church the cornerstone of his first papal trip to America. Benedict's third day in the US began on Thursday with a packed open-air Mass celebrated in 10 languages at a baseball stadium, and it included a speech to Roman Catholic college and university presidents.
But the real drama happened privately, in the chapel of the papal embassy between events.
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, a papal spokesman, said that Benedict and Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley met with a group of five or six clergy sex abuse victims for about 25 minutes, offering them encouragement and hope. The group from O'Malley's archdiocese were all adults, men and women, who had been molested when they were minors. Each spoke privately with the pope.
"They prayed together. Also, each of them had their own individual time with the Holy Father," Lombardi said. "Some were in tears."
Bernie McDaid, one of the victims, said in an interview with CNN that he told the pope he was an altar boy when he was abused and "it wasn't just sexual abuse, it was spiritual abuse. And I want you to know that. And then I told him that he has a cancer growing in his ministry, and needs to do something about it. And I hope he hears me ... and he nodded."
McDaid and two other victims said in the interview that the meeting was candid and emotional.
Well over 4,000 priests have been accused of molesting minors in the U.S. since 1950. The church has paid out more than $2 billion (euro1.26 billion), much of it in just the last six years, after the case of a serial molester in Boston gained national attention and inspired many victims to step forward. Six dioceses have been forced into bankruptcy because of abuse costs.
Expected to address the problem only once during his six-day trip at a Mass with priests in New York City on Saturday _ Benedict has instead returned to the issue repeatedly, beginning in a news conference on the flight from Rome to the U.S.
He has 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 priests.
On Wednesday, he told bishops the problem has sometimes been very "badly handled" and said it was their God-given duty to heal the wounds caused by abuse. He asked each parishioner at Mass on Thursday "to do what you can to foster healing and reconciliation, and to assist those who have been hurt."
Thursday afternoon's session went a step further. Lombardi said it was believed to be the first-ever such session between a pope and abuse victims.
Gary Bergeron, an outspoken abuse survivor from Boston who was not in the meeting, 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.
Some victims had called on Benedict to travel to Boston since it has been the epicenter of the problem. Instead, O'Malley presented the pope with a notebook listing the names of victims of sexual abuse from the Boston Archdiocese. There were more than 1,000 names, Lombardi said.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests called the meeting "a positive first step on a very long road." The group, which has been fiercely critical of the church, said it hopes the meeting will lead to reform in how church leaders respond to abuse claims.
The session came just hours after the pope celebrated the first public Mass of his U.S. pilgrimage.
More than 45,000 people filled Nationals Park on a clear spring day as the pope led the service from an altar erected in centerfield.
In his homily, Benedict called the United States a land of opportunity and hope but decried that the nation's promise has been left unfulfilled for some. He said he detected anger and alienation, increasing violence and a "growing forgetfulness of God." "Americans have always been a people of hope," the pontiff said. "Your ancestors came to this country with the experience of finding new freedom and opportunity.
"To be sure, this promise was not experienced by all the inhabitants of this land; one thinks of the injustices endured by the native American peoples and by those brought here forcibly from Africa as slaves."
Later, the pope told leaders of America's Roman Catholic colleges and universities that academic freedom has "great value" for the schools, but it does not justify promoting positions that violate the Catholic faith.
Also Thursday, the pope met with Jewish and Muslim leaders, along with leaders of other faiths, and affirmed the church's commitment to interreligious dialogue.
At 5:45 a.m., more than four hours before the Mass, it was standing-room only on Washington subways. Vendors hawked Vatican flags and souvenir buttons, but there were few takers as people hurried toward the stadium.
For others, there was nothing more important than getting in, and many people without tickets stood outside the subway station with signs pleading for extras.
Patty Trail, 54, pastoral associate at a church in Virginia Beach, Virginia, drove overnight to bring two priests to the Mass. She didn't have a ticket but said she was happy to at least be in the vicinity of the pope.
"Just to be out here, just to be in the presence," she said. "D.C. feels different."
At the end of the two-hour Mass, Benedict blessed the cheering crowd, some of them waving Vatican flags. Worried-looking papal bodyguards stood close and cleared a way for him as he walked out, while many worshippers tried to shake his hand or touch his robes. A number of lawmakers who support abortion rights attended the Mass, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. John Kerry, the former Democratic presidential candidate.
During the 2004 campaign, several bishops questioned whether Kerry should receive Communion because of his stand on abortion. The Massachusetts Democrat who took Communion from a priest far from the papal altar. For some, the experience of Mass with Benedict was overwhelming. It made Barbara Loh of Williamsburg, Virginia, tear up. "I've been Catholic all my life," she said. "My dream has always been to see the pope."