Pope leads service recalling sins, child abuse

Madrid, Spain - Pope Benedict XVI, seated before a sea of young pilgrims in Madrid, led a service Friday recalling Christ's crucifixion and the world's sins, including rape and crimes against children.

The 84-year-old pontiff presided from a vast white stage in city's Plaza Cibeles square over a Stations of the Cross devotion marking the torments of Jesus Christ's crucifixion and then his resurrection.

It was a solemn moment in a mostly street party-like atmosphere that has overtaken the Spanish capital with more than a million pilgrims joining the August 16-21 World Youth Day festivities.

Protests have nevertheless broken out nearby in the city as some Spaniards vented anger over the money spent at a time of sharp economic pain, with more than 45 percent of under-25s registered unemployed.

Crowds threw confetti and released yellow and white balloons as the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics headed to the service with the windows rolled down in his bullet-proof popemobile.

The pace slowed as he was driven past by 15 religious statues collected from around Spain, some dating back to the early 17th century, depicting 14 stations of Christ's ordeal, and a weeping Virgin Mary.

The elaborate works of art were on show along 700-metres (nearly a half-mile) of the major Paseo de Recoletos avenue.

Dressed in white cassock and scarlet cape, draped with a gold and scarlet stole, and with a white skullcap on his head, the smiling pontiff then took his place on the stage to deafening cheers from waving pilgrims.

Water vapour wafted down to cool the pope in the brutal August heat and silence fell as pilgrims carried a huge wooden cross to each station.

At each stop, young pilgrims from different nations read out a related text drafted by the "Sisters of the Cross", Spanish nuns who devote their lives to the poor.

The text at the ninth station, a 1989 statue from Granada of "Jesus Stripped of His Clothes", youths from Rwanda and Burundi, recalled "the sins against chastity and purity."

"Jesus suffers with all those who are victims of human genocide where brutal violence explodes, or victims of rape and sexual abuse, the crimes against children and adults. How many people are stripped of their dignity, of their innocence, of their trust in man," the reading said.

The Roman Catholic Church is struggling to deal with rising anger and a string of lawsuits following thousands of child abuse claims in Europe and the United States.

Pope Benedict XVI's ever stronger denunciations of abuse are bringing some changes, however, and national bishops conferences around the world are set to come up with common guidelines against paedophiles by May 2012.

Other stations recalled the innocent victims of war and hunger, and chastised "societies that are rich and blinded" by materialism.

"You are open to the idea of sharing your lives with others so be sure not to pass by on the other side in the face of human suffering," Benedict told the pilgrims.

Benedict spoke to more than 1,000 nuns outside a 16th century monastery earlier in the day and bemoaned "an eclipse of God" in today's world.

He also met with King Juan Carlos I. And separately he spoke with Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, whose Socialist government has ushered in many reforms the Church abhors: gay marriage, easier access to abortion and fast-track divorces.

Two days into his four-day visit, the leader of the world's estimated 1.2 billion Roman Catholics has so far steered clear of obvious criticism of those reforms.

Just a few hundred metres (yards) away from the papal events in the city, Spanish riot police have clashed with protesters angry over the high cost of the visit.

Police swung batons to disperse about 150 protesters who had gathered Thursday night in the central square of Puerta del Sol, birthplace of Spain's widespread "indignant" protests over the economic crisis.

The protesters are fuming over the official 50.5-million-euro ($73 million) price tag, excluding the cost of police and security, of the August 16-21 celebrations.

The Church argues that most of the cost is covered by pilgrims, who must pay a registration fee, and it says the event will provide a major tourism boost to Spain.

The pope will hold a "Prayer Vigil" on Saturday evening at an airbase southwest of the capital, where the pilgrims will spend the night under the stars on an esplanade the size of 48 football pitches.

He celebrates mass there on Sunday morning at a white altar almost 200 metres (660 feet) long in front of a wave-shaped stage and under a giant parasol "tree", made of interwoven golden rods.