Reporting from London — Pope Benedict XVI expressed his sorrow Saturday for abuses committed by Roman Catholic priests, saying that unspeakable crimes had brought "shame and humiliation" on the church as a whole.
In the latest in a string of such audiences, the pontiff also met privately with several victims of abuse even as thousands of protesters marched through the British capital to highlight the scandal over pedophile priests and to blast the Vatican's stand on homosexuality, the ordination of women and the use of condoms to fight the spread of AIDS.
Delivering a homily at Westminster Cathedral in central London, the pope apologized for the "immense suffering caused by the abuse of children" within the church.
"I also acknowledge with you the shame and humiliation which all of us have suffered because of these sins," Benedict told the worshipers gathered in the Victorian-era church, including former Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife, Cherie. "I ask all of you to show your concern for the victims and solidarity with your priests."
The pope did not specify whether he was talking about sexual or corporal abuse, both of which have been committed by priests and other Catholic workers. But his reference to "unspeakable crimes" appeared to imply the former.
Later, the pontiff had face-to-face meetings with five victims of clerical abuse, but no details of the exchange were released.
Such meetings have become a regular feature of his trips abroad as the pope attempts to contain a crisis that has damaged the reputation of the Vatican, some say irretrievably, on its home ground in Europe.
Victims' groups say that they want to see actions, not words.
"The Catholic Church has to cooperate with the civil authorities around the world to hand over all information that they have about abusing pedophile priests," Peter Saunders of the National Assn. for People Abused in Childhood told the BBC. "They have to institute proper child-protection measures in every Catholic diocese, in every Catholic parish throughout the world. That isn't happening at the moment."
Saunders was among an estimated 10,000 demonstrators who staged the biggest protest so far of Benedict's four-day state visit to Britain. They wound through downtown London toting placards expressing support for female priests and gay rights.
Also Saturday, the pope held brief meetings with Prime Minister David Cameron, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Harriet Harman, the acting leader of the opposition. He visited a home for the elderly in south London and conducted an open-air vigil for tens of thousands of devotees in Hyde Park.
On Sunday, the final day of his unprecedented state visit, the pope is expected to beatify John Henry Newman, a 19th century convert to Catholicism, at a ceremony in Birmingham.
Late Saturday, police announced that they had released six men who were arrested Friday in London on suspicion of plotting a terrorist act against the pope. Authorities conducted searches of 10 properties in connection with the suspects, but news reports said they found nothing dangerous.
Most of the men, who range in age from 26 to 50, were believed to be Algerians and worked as street cleaners. Authorities released no details on what prompted their arrest, but by Saturday evening, investigators had determined that the men posed no threat to the pope.