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 has since raised expectations that the pope would make a strong gesture to repair the damage of worldwide abuse scandal.
Ten men who testified that they were sexually molested by priests at an orphanage on the Mediterranean island of 400,000 people during the 1980s and 1990s have asked to meet with Benedict so what they call a “hurtful chapter” in their lives can be closed.
Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi, briefing reporters on the trip this week, declined to confirm 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,” 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.
But Benedict has said nothing on the issue 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.
More 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 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 60 A.D. 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: Portugal, Cyprus, Britain and Spain.