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Pope urges protection of children

Thousands attended Pope's annual service on Ash Wednesday.
Thousands attended Pope's annual service on Ash Wednesday.

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Pope John Paul II
Vatican City

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) -- Pope John Paul urged Catholics on the first day of Lent to reflect on the protection of children, speaking at a time when the problem of sexual abuse of minors overshadows the church itself in the United States.

"I wanted to draw particular attention to the difficult conditions that so many children in the world face," the 83-year-old pontiff told thousands of pilgrims gathered in St.

Peter's Basilica for Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, a 40-day period of abstinence.

The pope, whose Church is still recovering from a sexual abuse scandal in the United States, announced last month that the theme for Catholic reflection during Lent would be the protection of children against all forms of violence and exploitation by adults.

"There are young people who have been profoundly hurt by the violence of adults: sexual abuse, forced prostitution (and) involvement in the sale and use of drugs," he said.

Lent ends on Easter Sunday, the day of Christ's resurrection.

As previously announced, John Paul had lighter duties than usual this Ash Wednesday.

The pope, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, held the annual service at the Vatican rather than travelling outside the city-state to another church in Rome -- the latest sign aides are cutting back the elderly pontiff's schedule.

Strong, clear voice

But on Wednesday, John Paul spoke with a strong, clear voice for most of the service.

"Who, in fact, more than the defenceless and fragile young need to be defended and protected?" he asked.

The pope did not specifically mention the crisis in the U.S. Church on Wednesday or in the longer message for Lent released in January, but his comments come just days before a key study on the causes and costs of five decades of sexual abuse by priests is due to be released in the United States.

The crisis exploded two years ago with revelations of a cover-up of sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston.

The church was accused of covering up abuse and allowing offenders to be transferred to new parishes, where they continued to victimize children. The crisis spread, leading to suspensions and resignations of U.S. priests and bishops.

In the message for Lent published last month, the pope included in his list of abuses forcing children to work or take up arms, the break-up of the family, trafficking of organs and persons and the AIDS crisis in Africa.

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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