WASHINGTON - Pope Benedict XVI met privately Thursday with victims of clergy sex abuse during his trip to the United States.
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, a papal spokesman, said that Benedict and Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley met with a small group of victims and offered them encouragement and hope.
Lombardi said the pope told victims he would pray for them, their families and all victims of clergy sex abuse.
Benedict has spoken repeatedly about the abuse crisis during his first trip to the United States as pope.
He called the crisis a cause of "deep shame," pledged to keep pedophiles out of the priesthood and decried the "enormous pain" that communities have suffered from such "gravely immoral behavior" by priest.
He told the nation's bishops that the crisis was "sometimes very badly handled," and said they must reach out with love and compassion to victims. At an open air Mass on Thursday at Nationals Park, he also urged Catholic parishioners to do what they can to heal the wounds caused by the sex abuse scandal.
Thousands of priests have been accused of molesting minors in the U.S. since 1950 and the church has paid out more than $2 billion, much of it in just the last six years, when the case of a serial molester in Boston gained national attention and prompted many victims to step forward.
Gary Bergeron, an outspoken survivor of clergy sex abuse from Boston, failed in his attempt to meet with Pope John Paul II, Benedict's predecessor, when he spent a week at the Vatican a few years ago.
He called Thursday's meeting "a long-sought-for step in the right direction."
"The Catholic Church is partly based on symbolism, and I think the symbolism had he not met with survivors would have been horrendous," the 45-year-old Bergeron said.