VALLETTA, Malta -- Pope Benedict XVI met Sunday with a group of clerical sex-abuse victims and promised them with tears in his eyes that the Catholic Church would seek justice for pedophile priests and implement "effective measures" to protect young people from abuse.
Benedict expressed his "shame and sorrow" at the pain the men and their families suffered and prayed with them during the meeting at the Vatican's embassy in Malta, the Vatican said.
It was the first time Benedict had met with abuse victims since the worldwide clerical abuse scandal engulfed the Vatican earlier this year, and it marked his most personal and forceful statement on the spiraling abuse scandal since a letter to Irish faithful a month ago.
"He prayed with them and assured them that the Church is doing, and will continue to do, all in its power to investigate allegations, to bring to justice those responsible for abuse and to implement effective measures designed to safeguard young people in the future," the Vatican statement said.
The Vatican offered no further details of what measures would be implemented.
Victims' advocacy groups have demanded that the Vatican take concrete steps to protect children and remove abusive priests, saying the pope's expressions to date of solidarity and shame were meaningless unless actual action is taken.
The Vatican said the group of eight men, in their 30s and 40s, met with Benedict in the chapel of the Vatican embassy.
"Everybody was crying," one of the men, Joseph Magro, 38, told Associated Press Television News after the meeting. "I told him my name was Joseph, and he had tears in his eyes."
He said the men received a call Sunday morning to come to the embassy and that the pope spent a few minutes with each one of them. He said the overall encounter, which lasted about 35 minutes, was "fantastic."
Lawrence Grech, who led efforts to arrange the encounter, said the pope told each of the men: "I am very proud of you for having come forward to tell your story."
"It was something big," Grech said.
At the end, they prayed together and the pope gave his blessing, the Vatican said.
"The climate was intense but very serene," said Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi.
Benedict's overnight trip to Malta -- originally scheduled to commemorate the 1,950th anniversary of St. Paul's shipwreck -- has been overshadowed by expectations that he would make a strong gesture to repair the damage of the scandal.
In the end, the private meeting was only confirmed after it had occurred -- as was the case when Benedict met with abuse victims in the United States and Australia in 2008.
Benedict has been accused by victims groups and their lawyers of being part of systematic practice of cover-up by church hierarchy for pedophile priests, in his earlier roles as an archbishop in Germany and later at the helm of the Vatican morals office.
Ten Maltese men came forward earlier this month saying they wanted to meet with the pope to tell him their stories and to request an apology. They say they were abused by four priests at a Catholic orphanage.
Benedict made no direct reference to the scandals during a Mass Sunday morning. He told Maltese to cling to their faith despite the temptations of modern society.
"Many voices try to persuade us to put aside our faith in God and his church," he warned.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)