Pope Benedict XVI roused a crowd of young Mexicans and met with President Felipe Calderon on his second day in Mexico, overshadowed by complaints from victims of sexual abuse.
Crowds waved yellow and white Vatican flags as the Popemobile arrived in the steep streets of the colonial city of Guanajuato from neighboring Leon, in highly Catholic, central Mexico, where the pope is staying for three nights.
The 84-year-old pontiff, on his first visit to Spanish-speaking Latin America, celebrated a private mass Saturday before meeting with Calderon late afternoon.
They had been expected to tackle the issue of Mexico’s raging drug violence and a Mexican debate on secularism. The presidency said they had discussed a broad range of international issues, including the combat against organized crime and climate change.
Shortly before the meeting, victims of sexual abuse accused the Vatican of protecting a notorious Mexican priest for decades, and expressed frustration that Pope Benedict XVI would not meet them in Mexico, at a news conference.
A group including alleged victims of abuse by Marcial Maciel, the late founder of the influential Legion of Christ religious order, presented a book that they say proves that Vatican officials ignored crimes committed by Maciel.
The pope has met with abuse victims in many foreign countries but has no plans to do so in Mexico.
Benedict referred to the mistreatment of children, without specifically mentioning Catholic pedophilia scandals of recent decades, in a speech to dozens of children from the balcony of Guanajuato’s ornate Casa Del Conde Rul, where he earlier met with Calderon.
“I wish to lift up my voice, inviting everyone to protect and to care for children, so that nothing may extinguish their smile, but that they may live in peace and look to the future with confidence,” the pope said.
In a country where violence is an open wound for many families — with some 50,000 deaths blamed on drug violence in five years — the pope also warned young people against revenge.
“The disciple of Jesus does not respond to evil with evil,” he said.
In only his second trip to the world’s most Catholic continent, the pope is in Mexico before traveling to communist Cuba on Monday.
Thousands of people waited outside his lodging in Leon Saturday in a bid to get a glimpse of the pontiff, who is following in the footsteps of John Paul II who came here five times.
“We could hardly sleep because of the emotion and now we can see the pope,” said Xochitl Alvarez, an indigenous woman who travelled hundreds of miles (kilometers) from southern Mexico.
A highlight of the visit was expected to be a vast Sunday mass beneath a towering statue of Christ the King in the regional Bicentennial Park.
Mexican authorities have promised maximum security, with some 5,400 security forces deployed, while the archbishop of Leon even called on local drug gangs to call a truce.
Benedict comes to a Mexican church facing challenges including legalized abortion and gay marriage in the Mexican capital and a drop in Catholic numbers in the world’s second-largest Catholic nation — with 84 percent of the population baptized.
Although he has not addressed particular challenges to the church, Benedict has called for respect for human dignity.
“This dignity is expressed especially in the fundamental right to freedom of religion, in its full meaning and integrity,” he said.
The visit comes amid debate over new legislation, which Calderon’s government is backing, to end restrictions on religious ceremonies in public places and a ban on religious involvement in politics.
In Cuba, Benedict XVI will seek to follow in the footsteps of John Paul II, who was credited with strengthening the church’s relationship to the state and urging the communist island to open up, though it remains highly isolated.
Benedict said that Marxism “no longer corresponds to reality” and called for “new models” amid so far timid changes in the communist regime, on the journey to Mexico.
Cuban dissidents have meanwhile held a series of protests aimed at pressuring the pope into tackling the government on rights.
Benedict hopes to encourage religious fervor after more than 40 years of official atheism ended in the early 1990s.