SYDNEY (AFP) — Pope Benedict XVI met victims of sex abuse by priests before flying out of Australia on Monday, wrapping up a visit marked by his historic apology for the scourge of paedophilia in the Catholic church.
The pope, who two days earlier had publicly expressed his "shame" over the "evils" of clerical child abuse, celebrated mass with four Australian victims and offered them consolation, the Vatican said.
"Assuring them of his spiritual closeness, he promised to continue to pray for them, their families and all victims," a statement said.
"Through this paternal gesture, the Holy Father wished to demonstrate again his deep concern for all those who have suffered sexual abuse."
Benedict met two male and two female victims at St Mary's Cathedral shortly before leaving Sydney after a nine-day visit, during which he led hundreds of thousands of pilgrims in World Youth Day celebrations.
"As I bid you farewell with deep gratitude in my heart, may God bless the people of Australia," the 81-year-old pope said before boarding his chartered Qantas Boeing 747-400 for the nearly 21-hour journey to Rome.
He was seen off at the airport by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a committed Christian, who announced that former deputy prime minister Tim Fischer would become Australia's first resident ambassador to the Vatican.
After the pope left, Sydney airport faced one of its busiest days on record as more than 100,000 foreign pilgrims from some 170 countries headed home.
For a week, they transformed a city which usually worships sun and surf and is known as one of the gay capitals of the world into a vast cathedral teeming with hymn-singing Catholics.
World Youth Day was launched in 1986 by the late pope John Paul II to help stem the flow of young Catholics away from the once-dominant church in an age of growing secularism in the western world.
But the pope's trip was partly overshadowed by the controversy of sex abuse and he went further than ever before in his public comments on an issue which has plagued the church globally.
Benedict told a mass for clergy on Saturday he was "deeply sorry" for the abuse of children by predatory priests and called for the guilty to be punished and for victims to be compensated.
Some Australian victims dismissed the pope's apology as simple rhetoric without action and said he should have apologised in front of victims, not other priests.
Even after the pope met the four victims on Monday, prominent support group Broken Rites said it was concerned that they had been hand-picked.
"I'm afraid that what they've done is selected victims who have agreed with what the church's policies are," said spokeswoman Chris MacIsaac.
She said the pope should have met with Anthony Foster, the father of two girls abused by a priest, who cut short a holiday in Britain to return to Australia in the hope of meeting the pontiff.
Foster, whose one daughter committed suicide this year at the age of 26 after struggling for years to deal with abuse suffered at primary school, told AFP the pope's failure to meet him showed a "lack of compassion".
But the leader of the Catholic church in Australia, Cardinal George Pell, said it was not possible for the pope to give a personal apology to every Australian victim of sex abuse.
"It was a small gathering which we hope will send out a message of the genuine sorrow of the pope and of the Australian bishops," he told a news conference.
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »