SYDNEY (AFP) — Pope Benedict XVI offered a historic full apology for child sex abuse by predatory priests Saturday, saying he was "deeply sorry" and calling for those guilty of the "evil" to be punished.
The pope strayed from a prepared speech to express his shame and make his first direct and explicit apology to victims of corrupt clergymen in Australia, during a mass for Australian clergy in Sydney.
"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," he said in a line absent from the prepared text of his homily circulated to journalists.
His remarks to Catholic bishops, seminarians and novices in Sydney's St Mary's Cathedral were the strongest he has used in confronting the scourge which has rocked the Catholic church globally.
"Here I would like to pause to acknowledge the shame which we have all felt as a result of the sexual abuse of minors by some clergy and religious (order members) in this country," Benedict told the gathering.
The pope is in Sydney leading around 200,000 pilgrims at World Youth Day celebrations that have been partly overshadowed by pressure from victims for a full apology amid claims the church had not adequately addressed the issue.
But the Broken Rites support group representing Australian victims said the pope's words were not enough.
"Sorry may be a start but we want to see a lot more," spokeswoman Chris MacIsaac said, adding that she wanted victims to be treated fairly and not to be "re-abused by church authorities."
The parents of two girls abused by a priest in Melbourne described the apology as disappointing after returning to Australia in the hope of meeting the pope to press for better treatment for victims.
"They are only words -- the same thing we've been hearing for 13 years. It is simply an apology, there is nothing practical there which is what we were looking for," Anthony Foster said.
In a visit to the United States in April, the pope spoke of the shame and suffering that abusive priests had brought upon the church, but stopped short of a direct apology.
In Sydney, he went further and called for compensation for the victims of sexual abuse, ordered Australian clergy to help them recover from their ordeals and demanded that abuser priests should be punished.
"Victims should receive compassion and care, and those responsible for these evils must be brought to justice," he said.
"These misdeeds, which constitute so grave a betrayal of trust, deserve unequivocal condemnation."
The pope acknowledged that the abuse had "caused great pain" to victims and also damaged the church's standing.
"I ask all of you to support and assist your bishops, and to work together with them in combating this evil."
The pontiff, reminding Catholic clergy of their vows of celibacy, said it was an "urgent priority to promote a safer and more wholesome environment, especially for young people."
The 81-year-old pope said he hoped that dealing effectively with the sex abuse issue would purify the church and "bring about healing, reconciliation and ever greater fidelity to the moral demands of the gospel".
The church in Australia, as in many other parts of the world, has faced strong criticism over its response to past abuses and allegations that it tried to cover them up.
Broken Rites says 107 Catholic priests and religious brothers have been sentenced in Australian courts on sex charges, and Australian bishops apologised for past abuses in 2002.
Some victims of priest sex abuse attended a rally where 500 protesters opposed to the pope's stance on contraception and homosexuality hurled condoms at pilgrims marching through Sydney's gay district on their way to an overnight prayer vigil to start later Saturday.
A pink-clad drag queen called "Pope Alice" strutted her stuff as the crowd chanted "Pope go homo, gay is great" and sang "Pope is wrong, put a condom on."
A day ahead of his final World Youth Day mass that organisers say will draw up to 500,000 worshippers, the pontiff also lamented growing secularism around the world that has left the church fighting flagging membership.
"We find ourselves immersed in a world that would set God 'aside'," he said, adding that "religion is reduced to private devotion and faith is shunned in the public square."
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