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VALLETTA (Reuters) - Pope Benedict prayed and cried with eight sexual abuse victims in Malta on Sunday and promised the Church was doing "all in its power" to bring the guilty to justice and protect the young.
"It was emotional. Everybody cried," Lawrence Grech, a 37-year-old victim, said after the private meeting following the pope's Mass on the second and last day of his visit.
The meeting, announced only after it had finished, was Benedict's first such gesture since a new wave of sexual abuse scandals swept over Roman Catholicism in recent months. He had previously met victims in the United States and Australia.
"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," a Vatican statement on the meeting said.
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.
"He was deeply moved by their stories and expressed his shame and sorrow over what victims and their families have suffered," it said, adding he hoped their pain would heal.
A spokesman said the pope met with them as a group and then spoke to each individually before they prayed together.
"I lost my faith in the last 20 years," Grech, 37, said after the meeting. "I told him 'you can fill up the emptiness, fill up what the priests took from me when I was young.'"
"This experience is going to change my life. Now I can go to my daughter and say 'I believe,'" he said, breaking into tears.
The United States-based support group SNAP -- Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests -- criticized the Vatican for saying it was doing all in its power against sexual abuse.
"It's easy to promise, it's hard to deliver, especially in a rigid, ancient, secretive all-male monarchy," said spokesman Peter Isely. "Not a single adult should feel relieved until strong steps are actually taken, not promised, that will prevent future child sex crimes and cover ups."
The pope's trip to Malta has been overshadowed by the global church sex-abuse crisis. Earlier, at an open-air Mass, he heard the island's leading bishop say the Catholic Church had to be humble enough to recognize its failures.
So far on this trip, Benedict has made no direct reference in public to the worldwide crisis.
Speaking to reporters aboard the plane taking him to Malta on Saturday, he said Roman Catholicism has been "wounded by our sins" but did not use the word "abuse."
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 as disclosures encourage long-silent victims to finally go public with their complaints.
The pope himself has been accused of turning a blind eye in 1980, when he was archbishop of Munich in his native Germany, to the case of a priest who was sent there for therapy after sexually abusing children and soon transferred to parish work.
The Vatican has said a subordinate took that decision.
As Benedict was visiting Malta, 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 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.
But the spokesman said on Saturday night he had no further comment on the cardinal's remarks in Spain.
Reporting by Philip Pullella, editing by Tom Heneghan