Pope Benedict XVI chose this land of majestic natural beauty to condemn the squandering of the planet’s resources. He used a gathering of tens of thousands of Catholic youths to warn against sterile materialism and the exploitative manipulation of mass media and the Internet.
But, as in his spring visit to the United States, one theme loomed over Benedict’s weeklong pilgrimage to Australia: the sexual abuse of minors by clergy.
On Saturday, the pope delivered one of his most forceful and personal apologies for the scandal that he said had brought shame and pain to the Roman Catholic Church. He said those responsible must be brought to justice, their victims given “compassion and care.”
“These misdeeds, which constitute so grave a betrayal of trust, deserve unequivocal condemnation,” the pope told a crowded St. Mary’s Cathedral here. “I am deeply sorry for the pain and suffering the victims have endured, and I assure them that, as their pastor, I too share in their suffering.”
The last sentence was not in the original version of the pope’s speech. He added it to underscore his personal empathy with the victims, papal spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told journalists traveling with the Vatican entourage.
The language was more direct than in the apologies Benedict made during an April tour of the United States, where the church has also been rocked by incidents of severe priestly misconduct. But in the U.S., Benedict raised the issue every day of his visit and met privately with a group of victims.
In Australia, activists said the papal apology was insufficient.
“Victims want action, not words,” said Bernard Barrett, an official with the Broken Rites advocacy organization. “Things will stay the same. As late as last week, the church was opposing victims seeking compensation.”
Broken Rites and other victims and their families contend that the church hierarchy, starting with Cardinal George Pell, Australia’s top Roman Catholic cleric, has stonewalled efforts to seek reparations and prosecutions. They have documented 107 cases in which clergy have been convicted of pedophilia or similar crimes but maintain that the real number goes into the thousands.
The pope’s remarks are “the same thing we’ve been hearing for 13 years,” said Anthony Foster, an Australian whose two daughters were raped by a priest when they were in elementary school. The priest died in prison; one of the daughters recently committed suicide. “There is nothing practical there, which is what we were looking for.”
The pope is in Australia for World Youth Day, a biennial Christian festival created by the late Pope John Paul II to attract young Catholics to their faith. Pilgrims attend from all over the world.
Saying he had traveled to “the end of the world,” Benedict used his Australian visit and its bayside setting to push an ecological message. God’s creation, Earth, is being scarred by man’s relentless squandering of natural resources “to fuel an insatiable consumption,” the pope said.
He warned of spiritual pollution as well, condemning media that celebrate violence and sexual degradation.
“Our world has grown weary of greed, exploitation and division, of the tedium of false idols and piecemeal responses, and the pain of false promises,” the 81-year-old pontiff said. “Our hearts and minds are yearning for a vision of life where love endures, where gifts are shared, where unity is built, where freedom finds meaning in truth, and where identity is found in respectful communion.”
The pilgrims, wrapped in coats and hats against the Australian winter chill, held aloft candles, a sea of twinkling lights like stars. Despite some anti-pope protests at the margins, the youths have seemed unabashed in their enthusiasm.
Rhoda David, 35, a parish teacher from the Philippines, summed it up.
“You get to know different cultures and share your Catholic faith,” she said. “This is really good for growing the faith of the youth, to give them their faith.”
Special correspondent Bennett reported from Sydney and Times staff writer Wilkinson from Rome.