LONDON — Pope Benedict XVI apologized Saturday to five people who were molested by priests as children in his latest effort to defuse the sex abuse crisis shaking his church, as thousands of people angered at the Vatican's response marched in central London in the biggest protest of his 5-year papacy.
Benedict met for 30 to 40 minutes with the victims — four women and a man from Scotland, England and Wales — at the Vatican's ambassador's residence in Wimbledon and expressed "his deep sorrow and shame over what the victims and their families suffered," according to the Vatican.
"He prayed with them and assured them that the Catholic Church is continuing to implement effective measures designed to safeguard young people, and that it is doing all in its power to investigate allegations, to collaborate with civil authorities and to bring to justice clergy and religious accused of these egregious crimes," it said.
Across town, abuse victims and demonstrators opposed to the pope's stance against homosexuality, abortion and using condoms to fight AIDS marched peacefully from Hyde Park to Downing Street, the major protest of Benedict's controversial four-day state visit.
They carried banners reading: "The pope is wrong — put a condom on" and "Pope protects pedophile priests."
Later Saturday, though, an estimated 80,000 people massed in Hyde Park cheering the pope as he celebrated an evening vigil.
The sex abuse scandal has clouded Benedict's state visit to this deeply secular nation with a centuries-long history of anti-Catholic sentiment. Polls have indicated widespread dissatisfaction in Britain with the way Benedict has handled the crisis.
Anger over the 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 by church authorities.
During a Mass in Westminster Cathedral earlier Saturday, Benedict said he hoped the church's humiliation would help victims heal and help the church purify itself and renew its commitment to educating the young.