VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI's teary-eyed encounter in Malta with victims of sexual abuse by priests could be a turning point in his embattled papacy.
But skeptics, unimpressed with melodrama, are holding out for accountability and action against church officials who protected pedophile clerics. As Benedict marked the fifth anniversary of his election as pope Monday, April 19, the scandal was being seen as a defining issue of the German pope's legacy.
Many Catholics have been calling for Benedict to signal a clear-cut break with past practice as the abuse crisis began to buffet the Catholic church in Europe in recent months as it had in North America earlier in the decade.
But the Vatican insisted all along that Benedict would not bend to "media pressure." Instead, during a pilgrimage to Malta on Sunday, Benedict met for more than a half-hour with eight Maltese men who say they were abused by four priests when they were boys living in at a Catholic orphanage.
Participants said the pope had tears in his eyes and was clearly moved by their stories. The Vatican said Benedict expressed his "shame and sorrow" at the pain the men suffered, and promised the church would "implement effective measures" to protect children.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, did not elaborate on the measures mentioned in the statement. He said the meeting was more a "symbolic" than "legal event." The main U.S.. victims group, Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, remained skeptical. "Not a single adult should feel relieved until strong steps are actually taken, not promised, that will prevent future child sex crimes and cover-ups," it said in a statement.
The Vatican moved toward responding to critics who alleged it long concealed clerical sex abuse by recently making it clear for the first time that bishops and clerics worldwide should report such crimes to police if they are required to by law. The policy, spelled out in a guide for laymen, matches the policy worked out by U.S. bishops after an explosion of sex abuse cases in 2002.
Unlike the American norms, however, the Vatican guide contains no call for "zero tolerance" for priests who rape and molest children. The Vatican insists it has long been the Catholic Church's policy for bishops, like all Christians, to obey civil reporting laws. But such an explicit policy had never been spelled out before.
A further hint came Monday in the Vatican's release of a letter to all priests in the world by Cardinal Claudio Hummes, the Brazilian who heads the Congregations for the Clergy, inviting them to Rome for the June 11 end of the Vatican's Year for Priests.
"It is true that, albeit proportionally small in number, some priests have committed horrible and most serious crimes of sexual abuse upon minors, deeds that we must condemn and rebuke in an absolute and uncompromising manner. These individuals must answer for their actions before God and before tribunals, including the civil courts," he wrote. He said the church "is determined neither to hide nor to minimize such crimes."
Victims groups have been demanding that bishops involved in protecting abusing priests be dismissed, including several leading clerics in Ireland. Benedict has been accused by victims groups and their lawyers of being part of a systematic practice of cover-up by church hierarchy for pedophile priests, in his earlier roles as an archbishop in Germany and later as head of the Vatican office investigating such claims.
The Catholic dissident group We Are Church said Monday in an assessment of Benedict's papacy that is appreciates his latest efforts to combat pedophilia in the church. "The tragedy of Benedict is linked to the fact that he began too late, and in an inefficient way, and not backed enough by all the cardinals and bishops of the Roman Curia," it said.
Turin's La Stampa newspaper suggested Monday that after five years of management and public relations disasters in the papacy, the time has come for a major shakeup of the Vatican hierarchy. "Five years of light and darkness, above all for the solitude of the pontiff in a Curia of little help ..." it said.