- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 15, 2010

VATICAN CITY (AP) — In a key test, Pope Benedict XVI makes his first foreign trip since the clerical sex abuse scandal erupted when he visits heavily Catholic Malta this weekend — and all eyes will be on whether he meets abuse victims, as he has said he is prepared to do.

The two-day trip was planned as a pilgrimage among the faithful to commemorate the 1,950th anniversary of St. Paul’s shipwreck, but it since has raised expectations that the pope would make a strong gesture to repair the damage of the worldwide abuse scandal.

Ten men who testified that they were sexually molested by priests at an orphanage on Malta, a Mediterranean island of 400,000 people, during the 1980s and ‘90s have asked to meet with Benedict so that what they call a “hurtful chapter” in their lives can be closed.

The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman briefing reporters on the trip this week, declined to confirm that the pope would meet with victims on this trip but didn’t rule it out.

Benedict’s previous meetings with abuse victims during trips to the United States and Australia in 2008 were not announced in advance. Such an encounter must be “in a climate of meditation and reflection, not under media pressure,” Father Lombardi said.

The trip comes as the Vatican is battling weeks of revelations about priests who molested children and church officials who covered it up. Several old cases have touched the pope himself.

Benedict on Thursday made his first allusion to the scandal since he issued a letter to Irish Catholics on March 20, when he rebuked Irish bishops for “grave errors of judgment” in handling clerical sex abuse and ordered an investigation into the Irish church but did not mention any Vatican responsibility.

“I must say, we Christians, even in recent times, have often avoided the word ‘repent,’ which seemed too tough. But now under attack from the world, which has been telling us about our sins … we realize that it’s necessary to repent, in other words, recognize what is wrong in our lives,” Benedict said.

Recently, the Maltese church presented the first picture of sex abuse within its ranks, announcing it had received 84 allegations of child abuse allegedly involving 45 priests over the past decade. Local bishops have apologized for the abuse.

With Vatican statistics listing a total of 853 priests on the island, that comes down to about one alleged abuser in every 20 priests.

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.

The influence of the Catholic Church on the island is heavily felt in the European Union nation. Abortion and divorce are prohibited.

A flap over the visit erupted when the local church barred members of Parliament who are separated from bringing their new partners to the papal Mass on Sunday.

It will be Benedict’s first visit as pope to the island, where his immediate predecessor, John Paul II, stopped in 1990 and 2001.

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.

The pope is scheduled to arrive Saturday afternoon, meet with the president and visit a grotto linked to St. Paul. Tradition holds that Paul stayed three months on the island in A.D. 60 after being shipwrecked on the way to Rome, and was treated well by islanders.

On Sunday the pope will celebrate an open-air Mass and meet with young people before returning to Rome.

Benedict has four more foreign trips scheduled this year, all in Europe: to Portugal, Cyprus, Britain and Spain.

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