DENVER -- Pope John Paul II made his first public reference here yesterday to the problem of sexual abuse of children by priests, saying that "every human means for responding to this evil must be implemented."
He told an invited audience of 18,000 at the McNichols Sports Arena, "At a time when all institutions are suspect, the church herself has not escaped reproach."
Noting that he had already written to the bishops of the United States about the "suffering and scandal caused by the sins of some ministers of the altar," the pope said that this tragedy demands "ardent, humble, confident prayer."
His grim comments came on a day when, in a variety of ways, he maintained his intense popularity with youthful Roman Catholics from 73 nations.
If their views of the world's problems were as volatile as Colorado's weather and as varied as their races, languages, economic levels, music, colorful headgear, T-shirts and banners, the elderly pope's advice to them remained as firm and enduring as the rock of Peter he is supposed to represent.
And the 186,000 World Youth Day pilgrims -- at least the most demonstrative among them -- appeared to like it that way.
They included nearly 500 from the Archdiocese of Baltimore who worshiped, sang, lighted candles, hiked and rested on blankets -- whether on the ground or the expanses of carpeted public spaces indoors, such as the huge Colorado Convention Center -- in solidarity with the visiting pope.
The scattered sites of their prayers, singing and discussions yesterday included Denver's Gothic-style cathedral, the wide, monumental Civic Center Park downtown -- renamed Celebration Plaza for last week's religious observances -- and muddy, rocky Cherry Creek State Park, 15 miles south of here.
About 60,000 pilgrims with flags, backpacks and water bottles -- about three times the number planned for -- hiked to Cherry Creek State Park, joined by more than that number in buses for last night's candlelight vigil with the pope.
The state park is where this morning's culminating celebration of the papal visit, the biennial World Youth Day Mass, is expected to draw 500,000 Catholics and the curious of other faiths from Denver and surrounding communities.
'The new evangelization'
At yesterday morning's worship in the cathedral, the pope was joined by rows of cardinals, archbishops and bishops robed in white.
As he presided, he was flanked by two of them, Vatican Cardinal Eduardo Pironio and the Baltimore-born archbishop of Denver, J. Francis Stafford.
Also present near the altar was Baltimore Archbishop William H. Keeler, the elected head of the U.S. hierarchy.
The pope's audience included about 300 student leaders from around the world -- 20 were from the United States -- and other invited guests whose garb ranged from their Sunday best to hiking shorts.
Noting with approval in his heavily accented English the music that has become the international language of the Denver gathering, the pope said, "So many different tongues ring out in praise of God."
He then delivered the core of his message to his diverse, often disputatious church of 1 billion souls, "Out of all the diversity of the young people gathered here -- diversity of origin, race and language -- the spirit of truth will create the deep and abiding unity of commitment to the new evangelization, in which the defense of human life, the promotion of human rights and the fostering of a civilization of love are urgent tasks."
The pope presided -- as he has at all public events since his arrival here Thursday -- under the watchful eyes of the Secret Service.
After all, he is, in addition to being a spiritual celebrity, the head of the tiny Vatican state.
His homily was answered by a burst of applause.
After the Mass, the long line of student representatives from around the world filed up to the pope, knelt and kissed his ring, whispered in his ear, embraced him and, in at least one case, kissed him on both cheeks.
They received from the smiling churchman a blessing, a pat on the shoulder or head, and a boxed rosary as his gift.
The background music was a syncopated singing -- to the accompaniment of hand-clapping -- of "We are one body, one body in Christ," repeated over and over. It is the theme song of World Youth Day '93.
Admiration for Pope John Paul seemed universal throughout yesterday in the international crowds of Catholic teen-agers and young adults, even when they demurred at certain details of his uncompromising, traditionalist spiritual guidance.
Typical was Brandi Adams, 17, of the Sacred Heart Parish in Glyndon, Baltimore County. She said she was one of only 10 Americans selected -- she didn't know how or why -- to be part of the "exchanging of the sign of peace," an embrace, with the pope during last night's vigil at Cherry Creek park.
Calling the response of teen-agers to the pope's presence "incredible," she said: "He is truly inspiring. He comes across as one of the most powerful, caring, most wonderful people in the world."
She said she felt that way even though she anticipated changes in the church's attitude toward equal rights for women after his lifetime.
"I think as time goes on, things will start to change and develop in the church," she said, adding, "It took a long time to get where women are now."
More ambivalent about the immediate need for female priests than some of the teen-agers around her, she said, "I think the empowerment of women in other parts of the world must come first, places like South America, India, Asia and Africa."
As for the likelihood of their ordination, which Pope John Paul has firmly forbidden, she smiled and said, "It just might happen eventually."
Brad Udvardy, 17, of St. John's Parish in Frederick County, was also picked to be part of the papal exchange of the sign of peace.
"I tend to agree with Brandi," he said. "Americans are used to quick changes. The church moves slowly."
Many of the Maryland teen-agers agreed that the diverse, international manifestation of Catholicism in Denver was more impressive than they expected when they left Baltimore on Tuesday.
Debbie Moody, 17, of Middletown in Frederick County, said the pope has not changed her view that he is wrong in his condemnations of birth control and women's ordination. "But I understand both sides of the issue better now," she said.
Amy Beall, 18, of Baltimore's Shrine of the Little Flower parish, was chosen to be part of a candle-lighting near the pope last night. She said the whole World Youth Day experience, including seeing the pope in person, was "full of inspiration and really gets you pumped up."
A talk here by Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law made her certain, she said, that she must get the new catechism of the Catholic Church and read it when it is made available.
Cardinal Law was the principal proponent of the controversial catechism project at the synod of bishops in Rome in 1985, when some in the American hierarchy thought the new catechism would be a simplistic version of Catholic beliefs.
The weather remained true to Denver's reputation for uncertainty yesterday, with the long hike to Cherry Creek State Park made under brooding rain clouds but in lower temperatures than had been feared. The evening was windy.
Tall scaffolding decorated by huge banners in Civic Center Park had to be dismantled for fear that strong winds earlier had weakened it and made it unsafe.