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After Mass with thousands, a private offering of hope

WASHINGTON -- Pope Benedict XVI spoke Thursday with victims who as trusting children were sexually abused by their priests, an unexpected gathering that was the Roman Catholic Church's most dramatic step yet to acknowledge the harm caused by the ...

WASHINGTON -- Pope Benedict XVI spoke Thursday with victims who as trusting children were sexually abused by their priests, an unexpected gathering that was the Roman Catholic Church's most dramatic step yet to acknowledge the harm caused by the clergy.

The unscripted meeting at the Vatican Embassy was facilitated by Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley and involved victims from the Boston area, viewed as the seat of the widespread scandal, which involved 12,000 children and teenagers being violated by 5,000 priests in Catholic parishes nationwide.

"They prayed with the holy father, who afterward listened to their personal accounts and offered them words of encouragement and hope," said a statement from the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman.

"His holiness assured them of his prayers for their intentions, for their families and for all victims of sexual abuse," Lombardi said.

Three of the participants spoke emotionally about the meeting in an interview on CNN, each saying that he or she drew hope and some optimism from it.

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"I basically told him I was an altar boy in the sacristy praying to God ... and it wasn't just sexual abuse, it was spiritual abuse," said Bernie McDaid. "I told him he had a cancer in his church" that he needed to address.

Victim Olan Horne said the meeting was unscripted and that they were allowed to tell the pope anything they wanted. He said he didn't think he needed another hollow apology from the church, but that the pope showed sincere regret and offered him hope.

"I got up to him and I burst into tears," Faith Johnston said. "I think my tears alone spoke so much."

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.

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.

And on Thursday, as he celebrated Mass for 45,000 people at Washington Nationals Stadium-turned-open-air cathedral, he acknowledged the scandal as well. The meeting with victims came after that.

Victims' advocates called Thursday's meeting and Benedict's comments progress, but they said they fell far short of what the pope must do to address the abuse.

"It's easy to give a sermon about this," said Terry McKiernan, the president of BishopAccountability.org. "It's a little harder to face a victim who's been raped by one of your employees and listen to him and say you're sorry. But the really hard part comes when you start doing something about it."

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Gary Bergeron, an outspoken abuse survivor from Boston who was not in Thursday's session, called the 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.

At the Mass earlier Thursday, the leader of the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics -- 67 million of them in the United States -- celebrated a song-filled service rich with tradition, from the first kiss of the decorative altar to the delivery of Communion from a gold-plated chalice.

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 Thursday, Benedict 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.

Benedict, a former academic, said that church teaching should shape all aspects of campus life and that Catholic educators have a "profound responsibility to lead the young to truth."

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"I wish to reaffirm the great value of academic freedom," Benedict told hundreds of educators gathered at Catholic University of America.

"Yet it is also the case that any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the church would obstruct or even betray the university's identity and mission," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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