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 shame and make his first direct and explicit apology to victims of predatory clergymen in Australia, during a mass attended by local bishops, priests and novices.
His remarks in a homily 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 in this country," Benedict told the gathering.
Diverting from the text of his prepared homily which had been made available to journalists a couple of hours earlier, the pontiff said: "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 pope is 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 in an immediate reaction to his apology, the Broken Rites support group representing Australian victims said it did not go far enough.
"Sorry may be a start but we want to see a lot more," spokeswoman Chris MacIsaac said.
"We want the victims to be treated fairly, we don't want them to feel that they have been shut out, we don't want them to be re-abused by church authorities," she said.
The pope first spoke of the shame and suffering that predatory priests had brought upon the church during a visit to the United States in April, but his comments were seen to fall short of a direct apology.
In Sydney, the pope called for compensation for the victims of sexual abuse, ordered Australian clergy to help them recover from their ordeals and demanded that predatory priests should be punished.
"Victims should receive compassion and care, and those responsible for these evils must be brought to justice," he said in Sydney's St Mary's Cathedral.
"These misdeeds, which constitute so grave a betrayal of trust, deserve unequivocal condemnation."
The pope told the audience of 3,400 people invited to attend the mass to consecrate a new altar for the cathedral that the cases of 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."
In a homily in which he also reminded Catholic clergy of their vows of celibacy, the pope added: "It is an urgent priority to promote a safer and more wholesome environment, especially for young people."
The 81-year-old pontiff said he hoped that dealing effectively with the sex abuse issue would "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 been mired in a long-running controversy over its response to past abuses and allegations 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.
Jesuit priest and lawyer Father Frank Brennan told AFP the pontiff had "gone further" in his remarks than he had in the United States by using the term "deeply sorry."
"I'm pleased the Holy father has repeated the sentiments he expressed in the United States and that he has even very explicitly added an expression of his own deep personal sorrow for the hurt caused," he said.
In his homily a day ahead of his final World Youth Day mass that organisers say will attract up to 500,000 Catholic pilgrims, the pontiff lamented increasing secularism around the world that has left the church fighting to bolster its membership.
"We find ourselves immersed in a world that would set God 'aside'. In the name of human freedom and autonomy, God's name is passed over in silence, religion is reduced to private devotion and faith is shunned in the public square," he said.
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