By MELISSA EDDY and VICTOR L. SIMPSON
ERFURT, Germany – Pope Benedict XVI has met with German victims of sexual abuse by priests and expressed “deep compassion and regret” at the suffering of those abused by members of the clergy, the Vatican said.
The pope met for half an hour Friday with five victims on the second day of his four-day state visit to his native Germany, following an ecumenical service with members of the country’s Lutheran church and an evening vesper held in a small chapel nestled deep in the former East Germany.
Germany’s Catholic church has seen the numbers of faithful leaving the congregation jump, after hundreds of people came forward last year with stories of having been physically or sexually abused by members of the clergy. Church leaders had expressed hope that Benedict’s visit could help heal wounds left by the scandal.
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.
The Vatican said in a statement following Friday’s meeting that the pope was “moved and deeply shaken” and is close to the victims. He expresses the hope that God “may heal the wounds of the victims and grant them inner peace,” the Vatican said.
Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said the victims were two women and three men from all over Germany. He said the meeting was held in “very calm” circumstances and that a member of the hotline service set up by Germany’s church to field abuse claims was also present.
The pope assured the group that church officials are “seriously concerned” about dealing with crimes of abuse and are committed to enact effective measures to protect children, the Vatican said.
The pope has had similar meetings on trips to the U.S., Australia, Malta and Britain, all hit by the worldwide sex abuse scandal that has plagued the Roman Catholic church over the past decades. In Germany, claims began to emerge in 2010.
Emmanuel Henckens of Belgium, a member of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said the German meeting, “will make a handful of wounded individuals feel better for a while,” but will do nothing “to stop priests from molesting kids, or bishops from concealing crimes.”
Benedict started Friday in Berlin with a closed-door meeting with leaders from Germany’s Muslim community. He told them that he understood the “great importance” they placed on the religious dimension of life.
In one of his main themes, he then made a landmark visit to the Erfurt monastery where Martin Luther studied before splitting from the Catholic Church centuries ago and launching the Protestant Reformation.
In a sign of how far relations have improved between the two churches in recent decades, the pope praised Luther for his “deep passion and driving force” in his beliefs. But he didn’t announce any concrete steps to achieve greater unity among Christians, as some had hoped.
During an ecumenical service held in the monastery’s stone chapel, with soaring stained glass windows that date from even before Luther prayed here in the early 1500s, Benedict acknowledged there was talk before the visit that he would come bearing an “ecumenical gift.”
Instead, the pontiff told an audience including representatives of Germany’s Lutheran Church that such a belief was “a political misreading of faith and of ecumenism.”
Leaders from both sides of the church were quick to underline that the pontiff’s mere presence in the heartland of the Reformation was a key signal to how vastly relations have improved.
“It must be recalled that the pope has come to this monastery in Erfurt as a gesture that is an indication that he is fully aware of its meaning,” said Thies Gundlach, a deputy in the German Lutheran Church.
Nevertheless, expectations from the Lutherans remain high, as the community looks ahead to celebrations marking the 500th anniversary of Luther’s nailing his 95 theses to the door of the Castle church in nearby Wittenberg demanding change in the Catholic church that ultimately led to a split.
German Lutheran leader Nikolaus Schneider told the pope “it is time to take real steps for reconciliation” and suggested Catholics join Protestants in marking the anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.
Some Catholics and Lutherans have called for a joint commission to examine the Reformation and Luther’s excommunication.
After a morning in the city, Benedict was flown by a German police helicopter to a small chapel nestled deep in the former East Germany, where he honored those Catholics who helped resist communist rule. A crowd estimated by organizers at 90,000- twice as large as expected- filled the neighboring field in Etzelsbach, a popular stop for pilgrims.
The pope said Christians had sought spiritual comfort at the shrine during the “two godless dictatorships, which sought to deprive the people of their ancestral faith,” referring to the Nazis and communists.
Benedict’s visit has drawn protesters, many opposed to the Catholic church’s views on homosexuality, abortion and other issues.
A demonstration in front of Erfurt’s main train station drew only about 150 people Friday night, but about 9,000 people protested in downtown Berlin on Thursday.