Pope arrives in Malta, where sex abuse victims hope to meet him during brief pilgrimage

By Victor L. Simpson, AP
Saturday, April 17, 2010

Pope arrives in Malta, sex abuse meeting unclear

VALLETTA, Malta — Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday began a brief pilgrimage to this heavily Catholic island, saying “our sins” have wounded the church in Malta, where victims of sex abuse by clergy hope to meet with him.

The pontiff is making his first foreign trip since the scandals erupted.

The overnight trip was long planned as a pilgrimage among the faithful to commemorate the 1,950th anniversary of St. Paul’s shipwreck, but it has since raised expectations that the pope would make a strong gesture to repair the damage of the worldwide abuse scandal.

Benedict did not take questions from reporters aboard the chartered Alitalia plane, which flew him from Rome to this Mediterranean archipelago.

Instead, in the five minutes in which he spoke to the media, he made what the Vatican called “reflections and considerations” on written questions submitted in advance by some media.

Speaking about the church on the island, Benedict said that “Christ loves Malta, even if the body (of the church) is wounded by our sins.” But he made no direct references to the scandals rocking his papacy after allegations of wrongful handling of sex abuse cases have touched the pope himself.

Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi told reporters that the pope’s remarks were “references” that could have “touched” on the scandals.

The pope’s flight was one of the few to depart on Saturday from Leonardo da Vinci airport in Rome, where many flights were canceled because of the no-fly zone in northern Italy and much of Europe due to the eruption of Iceland’s volcano.

The pontiff, who turned 83 on Friday, sounded hoarse as he began the overnight trip on Malta. He flies back to Rome on Sunday evening.

On the island, 10 men who testified that they were sexually molested by priests at an orphanage here during the 1980s and 1990s have asked to meet with Benedict so what they call a “hurtful chapter” in their lives can be closed.

The Maltese men who have spoken up say they were abused by four priests at a Catholic home for boys, alleging that if they resisted sexual advances they would be asked to leave the home, which was their only shelter.

Lombardi earlier in the week declined to confirm the pope would meet with victims on this trip but didn’t rule it out. Benedict’s previous meetings with abuse victims during trips to the United States and Australia in 2008 were not announced in advance.

A few days earlier Benedict made his first allusion to the scandal since he issued a letter to Irish Catholics on March 20, when he rebuked Irish bishops for “grave errors of judgment” in handling clerical sex abuse and ordered an investigation into the Irish church but did not mention any Vatican responsibility, as victims have demanded.

On Thursday, the pope said faithful must acknowledge “what is wrong in our lives” and repent.

Recently, the Maltese church announced it had received 84 allegations of child abuse allegedly involving 45 priests over the past decade. Local bishops have apologized for the abuse.

The influence of the Catholic church on the island is heavily felt in the European Union nation. Abortion and divorce are prohibited.

Strikingly for such a Catholic country, billboards announcing the visit bearing a large photo of Benedict have been defaced over the past few days, with one giving the German-born pope a Hitler-like mustache.

Tradition holds that St. Paul stayed three months on Malta after being shipwrecked on the way to Rome.

Pope Benedict XVI began a weekend pilgrimage to Malta, with his flight to the Mediterranean island one of the relatively few to depart on Saturday from Rome.

Leonardo da Vinci airport was still operating but many flights were canceled because of the no-fly zone in northern Italy and much of elsewhere in Europe due to the eruption of Iceland’s volcano.

Benedict’s chartered Alitalia flight was making the trip, scheduled to last just over an hour, to Malta, a heavily Catholic archipelago south of Italy.

Benedict, who just turned 83, is about to complete his fifth year as pope as his papacy and the entire Catholic church are rocked by widening scandals over clerical sex abuse and cover-ups by hierarchy.

Earlier in the day, the Holy See’s spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, told Vatican Radio that Benedict is forging ahead with his papacy on “a sure route.” The Vatican will mark the fifth anniversary of his election on Monday.

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