Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday expressed his personal \"shame and sorrow\" to victims of paedophile priests at a surprise meeting during a visit to Malta.
The small group of men met Benedict at the papal envoy\'s residence in Malta, one of the countries rocked by the international scandal that has shaken the Roman Catholic Church.
The pontiff "was deeply moved by their stories and expressed his shame and sorrow over what victims and their families have suffered," the Vatican said.
Pope Benedict "prayed with them and assured them that the Church is doing, and will continue to do, all in its power to investigate allegations (and) to bring to justice those responsible for abuse," it said in a statement.
Benedict promised the victims "effective measures designed to safeguard young people in the future."
The 83-year-old pope arrived in the tiny Mediterranean state on Saturday on his first foreign trip since the focus of the priest sex abuse scandals moved to Europe in recent months.
The pope, who met with victims in Australia and the United States in 2008, has come under increasing pressure over allegations that the Vatican hierarchy, himself included, helped protect predator priests.
While the Vatican and senior bishops have rallied around the pope, the Catholic leadership has faced mounting pressure to act to repair the Church\'s image.
On the flight to Malta on Saturday, the pope said the Roman Catholic Church had been "wounded by our sins".
"Malta loves Christ who loves his Church which is his body, even if this body is wounded by our sins," he said.
Predominantly Catholic Malta, where one in three children under 16 attend Catholic schools, has itself been hit by fresh allegations of abuse.
The Maltese Church revealed recently that a paedophilia "response team" it set up in 1999 had received allegations against 45 priests.
Although nearly nearly half of these had been ruled groundless, it added: "For the Church, every case is one too many."
Malta has also been scandalised by revelations that a suspected paedophile priest has retired here from Canada.
The Vatican\'s ambassador to Malta, Nuncio Tommaso Caputo, said of the 26-hour visit: "We will receive him with joy and gratitude" at a time when the pope is "suffering" while keeping his "calm".
Amid the global furore over paedophile priests, the pope has faced an uphill challenge in getting across the messages he had planned for Malta -- notably on immigration.
Malta is the smallest member of the European Union with a population of some 443,000. It lies halfway between Sicily and the north African coastline, and took in a record nearly 3,000 boat people in 2008.
Hundreds remain crowded into detention centres awaiting word of their fate.
Benedict has called several times over the past few months for fair and human solutions on the issue.
Malta has one priest for every 490 Catholics, compared with a global average of one in nearly 2,900, according to Church statistics.
Abortion is illegal and not even a matter of debate, though an increasing number of Maltese are in favour of overturning the ban on divorce.
But during his visit the pope reiterated the Vatican\'s anti-divorce stance.
"Your nation should continue to stand up for the indissolubility of marriage," he said. "And for the true nature of the family, just as it does for the sacredness of human life from conception to natural death."
The trip is Benedict\'s 14th overseas since 2005 and the first this year.
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