A day after turning 83 years old, Pope Benedict on Saturday embarks on his first trip abroad this year to the Mediterranean island of Malta. The weekend visit comes at a difficult time as the pope and the Catholic Church are dealing with mounting criticism over a child sex abuse crisis by priests. Abuse victims in Malta want to meet the pope so they can close a painful chapter in their lives.
It will be Pope Benedict's first trip to Malta, which was visited by his predecessor John Paul II in 1990 and 2001. The pope is visiting the island over the weekend to commemorate the 1,950th anniversary of St. Paul's shipwreck.
But as criticism continues to mount over how the clerical sex abuse scandal has been handled by the church, there have been growing calls for the pope to make a strong gesture and meet with abuse victims on the island.
A number of Maltese men who grew up in an orphanage run by the Missionaries of Saint Paul say priests molested them when they were teenagers. 37-year-old Joseph Magro is one of the victims.
He says his abuser was Father Charles Pulis who still works at a convent on the island. The priest is no longer allowed to say mass in public but is still free to mix with young boys and has not been convicted of any crime.
"Every morning at 6, at quarter past 6, he came to my room and wake me with erotic kisses, he bite my lips and masturbate me. It was done for two years. And the incredible thing is that at 7 he celebrated the mass, the same priest," explained Magro.
Like him there are others. Noel Demec was also at the orphanage and after his experience has great difficulty accepting anything about the priesthood. He says they were taken advantage of because they were children and could not tell anyone what was happening. They added that if they resisted sexual advances they would be have been made to leave the home, which was their only shelter.
"The first problem is that we are poor people. We came from an orphanage without fathers and mothers. Most of the guys that were there were poor people, very poor people, the poorest in Malta. They are trying to blame us in the court every time we go to the court," Demec said.
A civil case was opened against the priest in 2003 but little has occurred since then and the victims doubt they will ever see justice. They say the church in Malta is too powerful and that they have the best criminal lawyers who will fight to save their own.
"After 7 years, nothing has happened, nothing has happened. In fact we go to court, we open our hearts and our case again and we feel sorry for things we haven't done," Demec complained.
Lawrence Grech is one of the first victims of abuse to come forward in Malta. He says meeting Pope Benedict would mean a lot to him and to the others who suffered the same fate at the hands of the priests at the orphanage. It would also help those who have not managed to speak out and continue to live with their silence and hide their truth.
"I want the pope do the same thing what he done in Canada, Australia, in Ireland. At least he do an apology, he meet the victims, at least," said Grech. "No one can change my past, but if I meet the pope maybe things… I feel more spiritual. At the moment I lost my faith, at all. I don't believe in nothing, in nothing," he said.
Benedict's previous meetings with abuse victims during trips to the United States and Australia in 2008 were not announced in advance. The Vatican's spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said such a meeting must be "in a climate of meditation and reflection, not under media pressure."