VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict, who has come under fire from victims' groups for using vague language about the Roman Catholic sexual abuse crisis, Wednesday publicly promised Church "action" to counter the scandal.
In the past month since the sexual abuse crisis has exploded, with allegations mushrooming in the United States, Austria and his native Germany, he has used vague terms such as how the Church was "wounded by our sins" or needed "penance."
Speaking at his general audience, he used the word "abuse" in public for the first time in more than a month, a period in which the scandal has spread extensively and developed into the greatest crisis of his five-year pontificate.
Summarising his weekend trip to Malta at his weekly general audience in St Peter' Square, Benedict said:
"I wanted to meet some people who were victims of abuse by members of the clergy. I shared with them their suffering and with emotion I prayed with them, promising them action on the part of the Church."
Victims groups had demanded the pope say something directly in public instead of using indirect reference and generalities.
A statement Sunday in Malta after his meeting with eight abuse victims said the pope promised them the Church would 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."
That was one of the clearest statements yet from the Vatican that it wanted local bishops to cooperate with civil authorities in prosecuting priests who abused children.
HUNDREDS OF CASES
Hundreds of cases of sexual and physical abuse of youths in recent decades by priests have come to light in Europe and the United States in the last month as disclosures encourage long-silent victims to finally go public with their complaints.
Many cases date back so far that the statute of limitations has expired.
In the past month, the pope himself was accused of turning a blind eye in 1980, when he was archbishop of Munich in Germany, to the case of a priest who was sent there for therapy after sexually abusing children and soon transferred to parish work.
His deputy has taken responsibility for that decision.
As Benedict marked the fifth anniversary of his pontificate Monday, the Vatican was swept up in another potentially explosive case.
Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, a former Vatican official who congratulated a French bishop for hiding a sexually abusive priest in 2001, told a conference at the weekend in Spain he acted with the approval of the late Pope John Paul.
Last week the Vatican spokesman indirectly confirmed that a 2001 letter Castrillon Hoyos sent to the bishop posted on a French website was authentic and was proof the Vatican was right to tighten up its procedures on sex abuse cases that year.
A U.S. victims group has demanded that the archdiocese of Washington rescind an invitation to Castrillion Hoyos to lead a mass this weekend in the American capital to mark the start of the sixth year of Benedict's papacy.