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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Pope Benedict, in a dramatic surprise, held an emotional and tearful meeting on Thursday with victims of sexual abuse by priests, consoling them and promising them his prayers.
The 25-minute meeting, believed to be the first time a pope has met with victims of sexual abuse by the clergy, took place in the chapel of the Vatican's embassy and was kept secret until after it was over.
The encounter dramatically capped three days of comments the pope has made expressing shame about the scandal that has rocked the U.S. Church.
"They prayed with the Holy Father, who afterward listened to their personal accounts and offered them words of encouragement and hope," a Vatican statement said. "His holiness assured them of his prayers for their intentions, for their families and for all victims of sexual abuse."
Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the archbishop of Boston, the city where the scandal first broke in 2002, accompanied the group, which a Vatican source said was made up of about a half a dozen middle-aged men and women.
Chief Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said there was a lot of emotion in the room and some of the victims cried. Each victim then chatted personally with the pope.
Benedict spoke "affectionate words" to the group and Cardinal O'Malley gave the pope a notebook with the names of about 1,000 sexual abuse victims in the Boston archdiocese, so that the pope could pray for all of them, Lombardi said.
O'Malley replaced Boston's former archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned in December 2002 over the scandal.
Just hours earlier, at a Mass for some 45,000 people at the new Nationals Park baseball stadium, the pope acknowledged the "indescribable pain and harm" caused by the pedophile priests scandal, which has cost U.S. dioceses $2 billion in damages.
"No words of mine can describe the pain and harm inflicted by such abuse," the pope said in the sermon at the stadium hosting its first non-baseball event.
The U.S. pedophile priest scandal first erupted in Boston, where priests who abused minors were transferred to other parishes instead of being defrocked or reported to police.
At the stadium, advertisements flanking the scoreboard were covered by U.S. flags. A large yellow and white papal flag fluttered in left field and a papal seal covered home plate as the pope said Mass from an altar platform in center field.
"It is important that those who have suffered be given loving pastoral attention. Nor can I adequately describe the damage that has occurred within the community of the Church," he said during Mass.
From a towering white and gold altar platform, the pope asked U.S. Catholics to foster healing and reconciliation with victims and added: "Also, I ask you to love your priests, and to affirm them in the excellent work that they do."
The Church's position has always been that an extremely small number of priests -- less than one percent -- were abusers while the overwhelming majority were faithful to their vocation and protected children.
Bill Fay, a Catholic from Rockville, Maryland who attended the Mass, said the scandal had not shaken his faith and that he decided to keep his children in Catholic schools. But he was critical of the way the Church handled the crisis.
"They did a fairly good job of attempting to sweep it under the rug," he said.
The pope later addressed Catholic educators from around the country at Washington's Catholic University of America.
He said Roman Catholic universities and schools that ignore Church teachings in the name of academic freedom betray their identity and risk causing moral confusion among their students.
He goes to New York on Friday to address the United Nations, visit the site where the World Trade Center was destroyed in the September 11 attacks, and say Mass at Yankee Stadium before returning to Rome on Sunday.
(Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan and Tom Heneghan; Writing by Philip Pullella, Editing by Patricia Zengerle)
For more on religion, see the Reuters religion blog FaithWorld at blogs.reuters.com/faithworld