Following two days of meetings with religious and government leaders, Pope Benedict XVI on Sept. 18 turned his attention to his own flock as met with victims of sexual abuse and warned of the dangers of legalized assisted suicide.

As on previous occasions, controversy — this time, in the form of thousands of protestors marching through central London — threatened to distract from Benedict’s intended message, which focused on the redemptive power of suffering and the dignity of old age.

At a morning Mass in London’s Westminster Cathedral, Benedict apologized to victims of sexual abuse, and associated their “immense suffering” with Jesus’ own passion and death.

“I express my deep sorrow to the innocent victims of these unspeakable crimes,” Benedict said, noting the “shame and humiliation which all of us have suffered because of these sins.”

During his afternoon meeting with victims, Benedict again voiced his “deep sorrow and shame,” according to a Vatican statement, and assured them the church would “collaborate with civil authorities and to bring to justice” to church workers who are “accused of these egregious crimes.”

The Vatican’s top spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the victims were four women and one man, all in their 40s. Saturday’s meeting was the fourth time Benedict had met with abuse victims during an overseas trip.

Benedict later met with eight Catholic child protection officials, the first such meeting he has ever held, and praised their efforts to prevent the “deplorable” abuse of children.

An American advocate for abuse victims dismissed Benedict’s apology as a “no-brainer” and a “non-starter.”

“Who wouldn’t express sadness at decades of rampant child sex crimes and cover-ups?” said Peter Isely of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). “If the pope feels so much remorse, why won’t he take action?”

But another SNAP leader expressed cautious optimism that the pope’s meeting with victims might promote healing.

“We hope each of these brave individuals feels better as a result of the meeting, both now and years from now,” said Mark Serrano. “It takes real courage to disclose your pain to others, especially those in authority.”

As Benedict met with victims, thousands of protestors marched in a demonstration organized by a coalition of secularist groups.

The demonstrators, many wearing satirical pink-paper miters, chanted “shame on the pope,” and carried signs protesting sex abuse and Catholic teaching against the use of condoms, among other issues.

At a concluding rally near the Downing Street residence of Prime Minister David Cameron, speakers included the prominent biologist and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins, who called Benedict an “enemy of humanity.”

Benedict also met with elderly residents of a nursing home operated by a Catholic religious order. Amid an ongoing British debate over the legalization of assisted suicide, the pope told his aged listeners that “life is a unique gift, at every stage from conception until natural death, and it is God’s alone to give and take.

Thousands lined the streets of the pope’s extensive motorcade route, waving papal flags and cheering as he passed in his “popemobile.” At an evening vigil in Hyde Park, Benedict led tens of thousands in prayer for Sunday’s scheduled beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman in Birmingham.