Wearing white rosary beads that had just been given to him by Pope Benedict XVI, an alleged abuse victim said he felt at peace after emerging from a private meeting with His Holiness early yesterday afternoon.

In a significant expression of solidarity just after celebrating Mass on the Granaries, the Pope set aside 25 minutes for a private audience with eight men who say they were abused by priests as children.

As he touched the token hanging around his neck, which he will be using daily to say the rosary, Joseph Magro said the meeting had helped him heal.

"After so many years, today I am at peace with the Church. I am a different person," a beaming Mr Magro told The Times after the meeting that remained unconfirmed until after it happened.

A Vatican statement said the Pope was "deeply moved" by the victims' stories. He expressed "shame and sorrow" for the suffering they and their families endured 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".

In his speech bidding His Holiness farewell at the airport later, President George Abela thanked him for finding the time to personally address this delicate issue.

"We were all moved today to learn you personally met victims who allege abuse who requested to see you and they found comfort in your words. I am sure this will relieve some of the pain they have suffered for many years," he said.

This was the Pope's first meeting with victims of sex abuse by the clergy since the scandal erupted again last month. It was also the largest group of victims the Pope has met since becoming Pontiff five years ago today. He met five victims in the US and another five in Australia in 2008.

Yesterday's audience at the Apostolic Nunciature in Rabat, which started with a moment of silence, was also attended by Archbishop Paul Cremona, who later told The Times it was "very emotional".

Gozo Bishop Mario Grech was also present and, according to the victims, was in tears.

The Pope then had discrete individual meetings with each of the victims followed by another moment of prayer.

"He was as emotional as us," said Emanuel, who did not wish his surname to be printed. He described the meeting as "a gift from God", which would help those who had lost their faith to turn back to religion.

"The Pope is not to blame for what happened. Neither are the Maltese bishops, who helped us tremendously," he said. Last Tuesday, Mgr Cremona met seven of the victims in an encounter that lasted more than two hours.

Fr Federico Lombardi, the Vatican's press office director, said the meeting was "intense" but "serene".

Significantly, even though the Maltese Church has not yet concluded its internal investigation into the allegations, the Vatican statement described the men as "a group of persons who were sexually abused by members of the clergy", dropping the word "alleged".

The eight men, one of whom a Gozitan previously unknown to the others, were only informed of the meeting yesterday morning. They were escorted by a police car to the Nunciature, where they arrived at 12.20 p.m., nearly an hour before the Pope. The meeting was held in the chapel.

Asked whether the Church's Response Team - which is still investigating seven years since the abuse allegations were reported - was ineffective, Fr Lombardi chose not to comment. He also avoided answering a question on whether a follow-up meeting would be held between the Vatican and the Maltese Church on the matter.

Speaking to The Times shortly after the meeting, Lawrence Grech, another of the victims, said the meeting with Pope Benedict was "more than he expected".

"I was impressed by the humility of the Pope. He was ready to take on the embarrassment caused by others. He was very courageous. He listened to us individually, and prayed and cried with us. He even blessed a cross I had and thanked me for speaking out about the abuse," Mr Grech said, holding back tears.

Asked whether the Pope had uttered the word "sorry", Mr Grech said he never expected the Pontiff to apologise but listen and understand them.

"I said I wanted an apology because I was angry. Now my anger has subsided and I am satisfied with my meeting with the Pope, the topmost person who could have listened to me and my story. I will continue my battle, not against the Church but against paedophilia," Mr Grech said.

He even apologised if he had offended the Church or any Catholics, explaining that it was his hurt that was speaking at the time.

But he said he had not forgiven the priests, whom he referred to as "the four bastards", saying they had ruined a good part of his life.

The men now want justice from the courts, where a criminal case against three priests has been underway behind closed doors since 2003. They are also calling for a meeting with the President.

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