Valletta, Malta - With tears in his eyes, Pope Benedict XVI made his most personal gesture yet to respond to the clerical sex abuse scandal Sunday, telling victims the church will do everything possible to protect children and bring abusive priests to justice, the Vatican said.
The emotional moment carried no new admissions from the Vatican, which has strongly rejected accusations that efforts to cover up for abusive priests were directed by the church hierarchy for decades. But the pontiff told the men that the church would "implement effective measures" to protect children, the Vatican said, without offering details.
Benedict met for more than a half-hour with eight Maltese men who say they were abused by four priests when they were boys living at a Catholic orphanage. During the meeting in the chapel at the Vatican's embassy here, Benedict expressed his "shame and sorrow" at the pain the men and their families suffered, the Vatican said.
"Everybody was crying," one of the men, Joseph Magro, 38, told Associated Press Television News after the meeting. "I told him my name was Joseph, and he had tears in his eyes."
The visit - which came on the second day of Benedict's two-day trip to this largely Roman Catholic island - marked the first time Benedict had met with abuse victims since the worldwide clerical abuse scandal engulfed the Vatican earlier this year.
"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," the Vatican statement said.
Victims' advocacy groups have demanded that the Vatican take concrete steps to protect children and remove abusive priests and the bishops who protected them, saying the pope's expressions to date of solidarity and shame were meaningless unless actual action is taken.
The main U.S. victims group, Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said it was easy for Benedict to make promises about taking action to protect children.
"Not a single adult should feel relieved until strong steps are actually taken, not promised, that will prevent future child sex crimes and cover-ups," said Peter Isely, the group's Midwest director.
Magro said the men, in their 30s and 40s, received a call Sunday morning to come to the embassy and that the pope spent a few minutes with each of them. He said the overall encounter, which lasted about 35 minutes, was "fantastic."
Lawrence Grech, who led efforts to arrange the encounter, said the pope told each of the men: "I am very proud of you for having come forward to tell your story."
Grech said he told the pontiff: "This a one-time opportunity in life ... you have the power to fill the emptiness that I had, someone else took my innocence and my faith."
At the end, they prayed together and the pope gave his blessing, the Vatican said.
"The climate was intense but very serene," said Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi.
The private meeting was confirmed only after it had occurred - as was the case when Benedict met with abuse victims in the United States and Australia in 2008. He returned to Rome late Sunday.
Benedict's overnight trip to Malta - originally scheduled to commemorate the 1,950th anniversary of St. Paul's shipwreck - had been overshadowed by expectations that he would make a strong gesture to repair the damage of the scandal.
Benedict has been accused by victims groups and their lawyers of being part of systematic practice of cover-up by church hierarchy for pedophile priests, in his earlier roles as an archbishop in Germany and later at the helm of the Vatican morals office.
BishopAccountability.org, a U.S.-based website that tracks abuse, called on Benedict to follow up his words with actions.
"The pope must follow the meeting in Malta by accounting fully for his own role in the crisis and by disciplining complicit officials," the group said in a statement. "Otherwise, it will be evident that he was exploiting the goodwill of the survivors in Malta to improve his image."
Benedict made no direct reference to the scandals during a Mass Sunday morning. He told 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.