VALLETTA, Malta (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday began a pilgrimage in Malta, a Catholic nation buffeted by the worldwide clerical sex abuse scandal and where victims are hoping to meet with him as a way to deal with their pain.
Benedict made no direct comments on the scandals during a five-minute appearance to reporters aboard the flight that took him from Rome, nor in his formal arrival remarks before Maltese officials and foreign diplomats at the airport.
The overnight trip is his first foreign travels since the full force of the scandals have rocked the church and threatened to engulf his papacy.
Benedict, for his earlier roles as an archbishop in Germany and later in his long tenure at the helm of the Vatican morals office, has been accused by victim groups of being part of systematic practice of cover-up by church hierarchy for pedophile priests. The groups are demanding he take responsibility for the Vatican as an institution.
With the pope listening at the airport welcoming ceremony, the president of this tiny Mediterranean island nation tackled the issue head on.
“It would be wrong in my view to try to use the reprehensible indiscretions of the few to cast a shadow on the church as a whole,” President George Abela told the pontiff. “The Catholic church remains committed to safeguarding children and all vulnerable people and to seeing that there is no hiding place for those who seek to do harm.”
Abela recommended that church and state authorities work together so that “effective, transparent mechanisms are set up together with harmonized and expeditious procedures in order to curb cases of abuse so that justice will not only be done but seen to be done.”
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.
By Saturday evening, Benedict hadn’t met with any of the men, said Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi, adding that if he does see them, it will only be announced after the meeting. That’s how the Vatican handled Benedict’s meetings with abuse victims during pilgrimages to the United States and Australia in 2008.
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, in his first speech of the trip, noted Malta’s long Catholic traditions and the church’s influence on the country, which, in keeping with Vatican teaching, bans abortion and divorce.
The Maltese people “are rightly proud of the indispensable role that the Catholic faith has played in their development,” the pontiff said, sounding hoarse.
Aboard the flight, Benedict had told reporters 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.
Lombardi told reporters that the pope’s remarks were “references” that could have “touched” on the scandals.
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.
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.
On Benedict’s first day in Malta, about 100,000 people — roughly a quarter of the nation’s population — turned out to see him as he moved through the streets, Vatican officials estimated.
Tradition holds that St. Paul stayed three months on Malta after being shipwrecked on the way to Rome.
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.
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.
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.