But the apology was met with scepticism by victims and support groups who said the pope had not gone far enough, demanding that the church provide financial compensation and psychological help.

'Spritual proximity'

In a statement a Vatican official said the pope wanted Monday's meeting with two men and two women to demonstrate his concern over the issue.

"The pope listened to their stories and consoled them. He assured them of his spiritual proximity and proposed to continue to pray for them, for their families and for all victims," papal spokesman Father Frederico Lombardi told journalists.

Lombardi said the pope met with victims of abuse on his last day in Australia in order "not to interfere" with celebrations for World Youth Day that have drawn more than 220,000 young catholic pilgrims to Sydney.

No details were given of the conversations between the pope and the four abuse victims.

Benedict has made trying to repair damage caused by the scandal one of the themes of his papacy.

He held a similar meeting with clergy abuse victims in the United States during a visit to the country in April.