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Pope Laments Sexual Abuse by Priests

Sun Jul 28, 2002
By VICTOR L. SIMPSON, Associated Press Writer

TORONTO (AP) - Speaking publicly on the scandal for the first time, Pope John Paul II told young Catholics on Sunday that sexual abuse of children by priests "fills us all with a deep sense of sadness and shame," but he urged them to support the vast majority of priests who do good.

The frail, 82-year-old pope spoke clearly and at times forcefully during the three-hour Mass for World Youth Day, faltering only at the end when he grew visibly tired, slurred some words and lost his place in his text.

He told the estimated 800,000 pilgrims at a soggy, muddy outdoor Mass that young believers should not let the actions of a few sway their faith.

"If you love Jesus, love the Church. Do not be discouraged by the sins and failings of some of her members," John Paul said.

"The harm done by some priests and religious to the young and vulnerable fills us all with a deep sense of sadness and shame," he said.

"But," he said, emphasizing that word, "think of the vast majority of dedicated priests and religious whose only wish is to serve and do good."

"Be close to them and support them," the pontiff said to cheers from the vast crowd, which was basking in sunshine after spending all night outside and getting drenched by morning rainstorms.

Since January, the Catholic Church in the United States has been engulfed by sexual abuse accusations, and recent cases have cropped up in Germany, Ireland and the pope's native Poland. Canada faced a sex abuse scandal in the 1990s.

About 300 of the 46,000 priests in the United States have been taken off duty this year because of sex abuse allegations.

David Clohessy, U.S. national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, called the pope's comments a "missed opportunity," saying they seemed to focus more on suffering priests than victims of clerical abuse.

"A few words of apology from someone of his stature could help perhaps hundreds of people to feel some sense of healing," he said.

John Paul's comments came as Canadian news media reported the arrests last week of two New Jersey priests in a police sting involving a gay prostitution ring in Montreal. A spokesman for the Newark, N.J., diocese said both men resigned from their duties after their arrests.

With his condemnation of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in his earlier speeches and his mention of the sex abuse scandal Sunday, the pope addressed two of the major concerns of American Catholics.

Prior to Sunday, his only statements since the sex abuse scandals erupted in the Boston archdiocese in January had been a pre-Easter letter to priests and a speech to cardinals summoned to the Vatican ( news - web sites) in April.

During the week of World Youth Day activities preceding Sunday's closing Mass, some pilgrims said they wanted John Paul to discuss the sexual abuse issue to ease their concerns and questions about the negative publicity and what it meant for the church.

"I think it was a good thing he mentioned it," Janelle Morin, 16, said during communion. "The pope has really done all he could on the issue. Catholicism is founded on principles of honesty and truth. I have faith in the church. I know the bishops are protective and wouldn't do anything to intentionally harm us."

A huge congregation, including Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, sprawled over a former airfield in north Toronto that had been converted into an outdoor church with a 160-foot cross towering above. Vatican officials said Toronto police estimated the crowd at 800,000.

Waving flags from every corner of the world, people cheered wildly when the "popemobile" made its way through the crowd with the pontiff sitting and waving his arms in greeting. The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. called it the largest crowd in Canadian history.

Most of the congregation had spent the night at the site and woke up wet from a dawn storm. A steady rain that began later delayed the pope's arrival aboard a military helicopter by 20 minutes, but the skies over the site cleared as the pope began the Mass.

"When it stopped, we all woke up in puddles," said Cynthia Lashinski, 17, still in her sleeping bag with plastic on the bottom in a futile attempt to ward off the wet.

John Paul, who suffers from the symptoms of Parkinson's disease ( news - web sites) and hip and knee ailments, had had little sleep. A 2-hour prayer service at the vigil Saturday night ended around 10 p.m. and he was back at the Mass site around 9 a.m.

Last Tuesday, at the start of John Paul's 11-day trip to Canada, Guatemala and Mexico, he determinedly walked with a cane, an aide holding his left arm, at initial appearances in Toronto. On Saturday night and again at Sunday's Mass, he came on stage on a cart pushed by aides.

"You are young and the pope is old, 82. It's not the same thing as 22 or 23," he said at one point, dropping a comment in his prepared text that referred to his being "a bit tired."

More than 200,000 young Catholics from 170 nations registered for this year's World Youth Day, which was down from previous festivals, which the pope began in 1985 as a way to invigorate devotion among the young. He announced Sunday that the next World Youth Day would be in Cologne, Germany, in 2005.

"As pilgrims, your spiritual journey to Cologne starts today," he said, without adding, as he has at times in the past, that he hoped to attend the event.

The pope flies to Guatemala on Monday, then will go to Mexico to complete the 97th foreign trip of his nearly 24-year papacy. While aides had expressed concern that the trip would be too much for his declining health, the pope has surprised all by looking stronger and speaking more clearly than in recent months.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests