LONDON (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI said Saturday he was ashamed of the "unspeakable" sexual abuse of children by priests, telling the British faithful during Mass in Westminster Cathedral that he was deeply sorry and hoped the church's humiliation would help victims heal.
Benedict also said he hoped the church would be able to use its contrition to purify itself of the "sins" of its ministers and renew its commitment to educating the young.
Benedict addressed the abuse scandal head-on during his homily, which was broadcast live on British television, a day after six people were arrested in an alleged terrorist plot against him. They remained in custody Saturday.
The sex abuse scandal has clouded Benedict's four-day state visit to this deeply secular nation with a centuries-old history of anti-Catholic sentiment. Polls have indicated widespread dissatisfaction in Britain with the way Benedict has handled the crisis, with Catholics nearly as critical of him as the rest of the population.
Anger over the abuse scandal runs high in Britain in part because of the enormous scale of the abuse in neighboring Ireland, where government reports have detailed systematic abuse of children at church-run schools and cover-up on the part of church authorities.
The pontiff issued his comments in the seat of English Catholicism amid indications he would meet with British abuse victims, and as abuse survivors and others opposed to his visit prepared a march Saturday afternoon in London's Hyde Park to demand more accountability.
"I express my deep sorrow to the innocent victims of these unspeakable crimes, along with my hope that the power of Christ's grace, his sacrifice of reconciliation, will bring deep healing and peace to their lives," Benedict said.
He acknowledged the shame and humiliation all the faithful had suffered as a result of the scandal and said he hoped "this chastisement will contribute to the healing of the victims, the purification of the church and the renewal of her age-old commitment to the education and care of young people."
He asked the faithful to show concern for victims and solidarity with priests.
Among those in the cathedral were former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a recent convert to Catholicism, and his wife, Cherie.
Martin Brown, 34, who was in the crowd outside the cathedral, termed it "a good apology."
"He seemed to really mean it; he was genuinely sorry," Brown said. "It's good he mentioned it and it's good he didn't dwell on it for too long. He got it just about right."
Chris Daly, a spokesman for Scottish abuse victims, said the pope's words helped but that victims want to see action: an acknowledgment from church authorities of their failures and cover-up, and material support to help victims.
"There has to be an element of accountability here, and truth is a big issue here where the church has been complicit in a cover-up of the abuse," he said. "They haven't been open. They haven't been truthful. It's hardly Christlike to be complicit."