WASHINGTON — Pope Benedict XVI spoke Thursday with victims who as trusting children were sexually abused by their priests, an unexpected gathering that was the Roman Catholic Church's most dramatic step yet to acknowledge the harm caused by the clergy.
The unscripted meeting at the Vatican Embassy was facilitated by Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley and involved victims from the Boston area, viewed as the seat of the widespread scandal, which involved 12,000 children and teenagers being violated by 5,000 priests in Catholic parishes nationwide.
"They prayed with the holy father, who afterward listened to their personal accounts and offered them words of encouragement and hope," said a statement from the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman.
"His holiness assured them of his prayers for their intentions, for their families and for all victims of sexual abuse," Lombardi said.
Three of the participants spoke emotionally about the meeting in an interview on CNN, each saying that he or she drew hope and some optimism from it.
"I basically told him I was an altar boy in the sacristy praying to God ... and it wasn't just sexual abuse, it was spiritual abuse," said Bernie McDaid. "I told him he had a cancer in his church" that he needed to address.
Victim Olan Horne said the meeting was unscripted and that they were allowed to tell the pope anything they wanted. He said he didn't think he needed another hollow apology from the church, but that the pope showed sincere regret and offered him hope.
"I got up to him and I burst into tears," said Faith Johnston. "I think my tears alone spoke so much."
The pope hasn't shied away from the issue since he left Rome on his first trip to the United States since ascending to the papacy three years ago. First, en route on the papal plane Tuesday, he acknowledged the scandal as a shameful episode in the church's history in an interview with reporters. Then, in a speech to bishops on Wednesday, he told them to reach out to victims of the "gravely immoral behavior."
And on Thursday, as he celebrated Mass for 45,000 people in a baseball stadium turned open-air cathedral, he acknowledged the scandal as well. The meeting with victims came after that.
Victims' advocates called Thursday's meeting and Benedict's comments progress, but they said they fell far short of what the pope must do to address the abuse.
"It's easy to give a sermon about this," said Terry McKiernan, the president of BishopAccountability.org of Massachusetts. "It's a little harder to face a victim who's been raped by one of your employees and listen to him and say you're sorry. But the really hard part comes when you start doing something about it."
McKiernan said the pope needs to act like a responsible manager and start removing bishops who knowingly covered up child abuse — including those who might have sat on the field during Thursday's Mass.
"Pope Benedict is in no position to lecture us about moral dignity when his bishops are doing these things. He has to put his own house in order," McKiernan said.
"This is a small, long overdue step forward on a very long road," said Joelle Casteix of Newport Beach, Calif., a spokeswoman for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "We're confident the meeting was meaningful for the participants, and we're grateful that these victims have had the courage to come forward and speak up.
"But fundamentally it won't change things. Kids need action. Catholics deserve action. Action produces reform, and reform, real reform, is sorely needed in the church hierarchy."
The somber admissions by the church were made against an otherwise joyful celebration of the pope's six-day trip to the United States, first to the nation's capital before his expected departure Friday to New York.
At the Mass earlier Thursday, the leader of the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics — 67 million of them in the United States — celebrated a song-filled service rich with tradition, from the first kiss of the decorative altar to the delivery of Communion from a gold-plated chalice.
The Nationals Park baseball stadium was transformed for the Mass, with the altar constructed in the outfield, hundreds of priests in red, white and black robes on the field and thousands of worshippers waving gold-and-white papal flags from the stands.
"It brought me directly to heaven today," said Monica Greenberg, 66, of Washington, who watched from a wheelchair high above home plate.
Tickets to the event were handed out through local archdioceses, and many people had traveled across the country to see Benedict. Among the crowd showing up hours early were priests and monks in flowing robes, nuns in variously colored garb and women wearing traditional lace mantillas atop their heads.
A youth group from North Dakota spent two years raising $15,000 for the trip. Before the Mass started, they lined up for $3 bumper stickers that read "I (heart) Pope Benedict XVI" and $20 T-shirts bearing the pope's image.
"I'm just amazed," said Jessica Kurtz, 17, of St. Michael, N.D. "I never really thought I would see the pope."
Before the service began, the Popemobile did a lap along the inner rim of the stadium as onlookers cheered the pontiff, who could be seen wearing specially made silk vestments in a shade of red, a color that the church associates with the Holy Spirit, and a pointed gold miter on his head.
When the processional began, the acolytes, the priests and the pope emerged from the home team dugout and crossed the infield to the altar, the 81-year-old pontiff helped up the steps by priests.
Pope Benedict sat through much of the Mass, pulling on spectacles and reading from a book held open by assistants. He gave his homily sitting down as an acolyte held a microphone for him.
Despite its setting in a ball field, the Mass felt familiar to the faithful, from the carrying of the cross to the traditional hymns and familiar priestly blessings that, on Thursday, came from the pope.
"Peace be with you," he told his flock.
"And also with you," they answered in unison.
The Mass often felt emotional, as when thousands sang hymns of "Alleluia" during the pope's entrance and later as worshippers professed their faith during a ritual prayer. Many wiped away tears.
In a nod to America's multiple cultures, one of the readings and part of the pope's homily were delivered in Spanish, and songs and prayers included passages in several other languages, including Korean, Vietnamese, Tagalog from the Philippines and Igbo from West Africa.
Benedict brought a serious message in his homily, though. He said that the Catholic Church and society at large were each at a crossroads, showing great promise and hope, yet allowing polarization, alienation and increased violence to penetrate daily life.
"We see clear signs of a disturbing breakdown in the very foundations of society: signs of alienation, anger and polarization on the part of many of our contemporaries; increased violence; a weakening of the moral sense; a coarsening of social relations; and a growing forgetfulness of God," he said.
Benedict also continued one of the themes that he'd begun in a private talk with President Bush and in a public talk to bishops Wednesday: the need to embrace immigrants.
He ended his homily with a special message to his Spanish-speaking flock, delighting attendees who responded with cheers and shouts of "Viva el Papa!" at his first words in their familiar language. He told them that the church in the United States has been strengthened by its many immigrants and that by their evangelism it can grow even stronger.
Among the service's remarkable achievements was the offering of Communion, a machine-like operation that had hundreds of priests fan out across the stadium to offer worshippers wafers of bread, believed by the faithful to be the body of Christ. The Communion procession took less than half an hour, and after a closing prayer, Benedict joined the recessional.
The faithful rushed to be close to him as he left the field, reaching out to clasp his hand or touch his vestments over the outstretched arms of Secret Service agents.
Pope Benedict looked pleased, waving as he passed back across the infield and down into the dugout.
He planned to speak to Catholic educators later Thursday and to depart for New York on Friday morning.