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Page last updated at 21:49 GMT, Saturday, 17 April 2010 22:49 UK

Disappointment as Pope speaks in generalities

By David Willey
BBC News, Malta

Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict has described the abuse as shameful and hateful

Pope Benedict has plenty of opportunity during his brief weekend visit to Malta to talk about the clerical sexual abuse which has scandalised members of his faith around the world, and created a credibility crisis for the world's largest Church, the Church of Rome.

But he has chosen to speak in generalities and metaphor rather than to address the problem directly.

On the papal charter plane from Rome, in brief comments to disappointed journalists who were hoping for more substantial and candid comment, he talked about "wounds" and '"shipwreck" but studiously avoided ever mentioning the word "abuse".

Just as shipwreck brought Christianity to Malta, Benedict said: "The shipwrecks of our life can bring God's project to us and be useful for a new start of our life."

Extraordinary detail

The purpose of the Pope's visit to overwhelmingly Catholic Malta - the smallest state in the EU, with a population of slightly more than 400,000 - is to commemorate the shipwreck here of the apostle Saint Paul 1,950 years ago. "I follow in his footsteps," the Pope has said.

Alleged victims of sexual abuse by priests in an orphanage in Malta hold a press conference on 12 April
The sexual abuse crisis has recently arisen for the first time in Malta

The great missionary of the early Christian Church was being escorted to Rome from Judea where he was taken prisoner by the Roman authorities in 60 AD. He was accompanied to Rome by a Roman military officer, a legion commander called Julius, a surprisingly high rank to act as a prisoner escort.

The biblical account of St Paul's inadvertent three-month stay on the Mediterranean island is extraordinarily detailed.

It goes into such matters as prevailing winds in the often stormy Mediterranean sea during the winter months, the techniques of beaching and landing passengers from a sinking boat, and the number of passengers on the Egyptian cargo and passenger vessel on which St Paul was travelling.

The Acts of the Apostles recount that there were 276 people on board. None drowned, the chronicler says, when they arrived in a creek - still called St Paul's Bay - just to the North of Malta's capital, Valletta, after drifting for a fortnight on the high seas.

It was left to Maltese President George Abela in his speech of welcome to the Pope at the airport to speak openly and directly, not only about the missionary St Paul, but also to bring up the embarrassing subject of the clerical sexual abuse crisis which has recently surfaced for the first time in Malta.

Mr Abela recommended that Church and state authorities work together so that "effective, transparent mechanisms are set up, together with harmonised and expeditious procedures in order to curb cases of abuse so that justice will not only be done, but be seen to be done".

'Hurtful chapter'

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

The official Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, has stated that the Pope will not agree to any meeting that takes place in the full glare of media publicity, and that anyway the Pope's crowded programme during his 26-hour visit to Malta is unlikely to leave a window for such an opportunity.

The Archbishop of Malta, Paul Cremona, held a meeting with the men earlier in the week.

Monsignor Charles Scicluna - a senior Vatican official whose job title is Promoter of Justice and who works in the Vatican department now responsible for disciplining priests who commit grave offences (he also conveniently happens to be of Maltese nationality) - has agreed to meet them in June.

Yet the Vatican still appears to lack a coherent strategy to cope with an escalating crisis that is perceived by outside observers as one of the most grave to have hit the Catholic Church in modern times, but that the Pope himself refuses to address in public except in the most general terms.

This weekend the Pope has turned 83, he is not of an age to change ingrained Vatican attitudes towards the management of his Church.

Whatever the world says, Pope Benedict remains convinced that as leader of his 1.1bn-strong community, he personally is on the right track towards ensuring that in future his priests will never remain unpunished if they commit acts which are not only sinful, but also criminal.



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