Politics & Government

Pope tells U.S. bishops they must heal wounds of sexual abuse by priests

Pope Benedict XVI speaks at the White House in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday.
Pope Benedict XVI speaks at the White House in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday. George Bridges / MCT

WASHINGTON — Pope Benedict XVI told the men who lead the U.S. Catholic Church that it's their responsibility "to bind up the wounds caused by every breach of trust" involving the children who were sexually abused by their priests, and he acknowledged that the scandal had been badly handled.

"Many of you have spoken to me of the enormous pain that your communities have suffered when clerics have betrayed their priestly obligations and duties by such gravely immoral behavior," the pope said in an address to the nation's bishops at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

"It is your God-given responsibility as pastors to bind up the wounds caused by every breach of trust, to foster healing, to promote reconciliation and to reach out with loving concern to those so seriously wronged," he said.

Saying that many of them had adopted "more focused remedial and disciplinary measures" to protect young people, he offered few specifics about how to ensure that "the vulnerable always be shielded from those who would cause harm."

The remarks were some of his most extensive public comments on the scandal, which slowly unraveled, parish by parish, to eventually reveal 5,000 priests accused of abusing 12,000 children and teenagers in the United States.

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said the pope's remarks didn't go far enough in characterizing the scandal.

"Five years ago, U.S. bishops paltry, begrudgingly adopted some minimal promises on paper. There's no evidence to suggest they've had any real impact, and it's terribly naive to assume that's the case," said Barbara Dorris, SNAP's outreach director. "Child sex crimes and cover-ups have plagued the church for decades, and the church is an ancient, rigid, secretive, all-male hierarchy that moves at a glacial pace."

The morose topic was a stark contrast to how the pope started the day, in an upbeat, joyous welcome ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House with President Bush and an estimated 13,500 other guests, including clergy, Cabinet members, lawmakers and devoted Catholics.

There, he praised the U.S. commitment to freedom and its tendency toward charity and compassion.

But in his speech to the nation's bishops, he expressed his concerns that people weren't more consistent in living their faith.

"Any tendency to treat religion as a private matter must be resisted," he said.

"In a society which values personal freedom and autonomy, it is easy to lose sight of our dependence on others as well as the responsibilities that we bear towards them," the pope said.

He also told the bishops to embrace the immigrants in their communities and to help them flourish.

On the issue of abused children, the pope spoke of the dark chapter in the American church's history in his most expansive talk since arriving Tuesday in the United States. It's his first trip here since becoming pope three years ago.

He gave a nod to the bishops for the work they had already done to root out the problem and called on secular society to do its share to prevent such atrocities.

"Children deserve to grow up with a healthy understanding of sexuality and its proper place in human relationships," he said. "They should be spared the degrading manifestations and the crude manipulation of sexuality so prevalent today. ... All have a part to play in this task — not only parents, religious leaders, teachers and catechists, but the media and entertainment industries as well."

He acknowledged the damage the scandal had done in the most religious association most people know outside of their own relationships with God — between priest and parishioner.

"Priests, too, need your guidance and closeness during this difficult time," Benedict said. "They have experienced shame over what has occurred, and there are those who feel they have lost some of the trust and esteem they once enjoyed. Not a few are experiencing a closeness to Christ in his passion as they struggle to come to terms with the consequences of the crisis."

Earlier, there had been little hint of disharmony between the pope, who is synonymous with a strict adherence to church doctrine, and his "young church," known for playing loose with the rules.

Some admirers needed only a glimpse to be touched by the world's top Catholic after he left the White House and rode along Pennsylvania Avenue in his Popemobile.

"Oh, my goodness, it was thrilling. It brought tears to my eyes," said Monica Bockelmann, 62, from Burke, Va. "I believe he's a very holy man."

In his public remarks on the South Lawn of the White House, Benedict referred to the Founding Fathers and said their religious beliefs had helped "forge the soul of the nation."

"Freedom is ever new," he said. "It is a challenge held out to each generation, and it must constantly be won over for the cause of good."

Greeted with music by the Marine Band, a moving version of the "Lord's Prayer" by soprano Kathleen Battle, the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and two renditions of "Happy Birthday," Benedict drew a crowd estimated at 13,500 to hear the first public words he's made on U.S. soil since he became pontiff three years ago.

President Bush thanked the pope for the global example he set. His message of love is needed in a world in which some people use God's name to justify "acts of terror and murder and hate," Bush said.

After their public remarks, Bush and Benedict retreated to the presidential residence, where the pope was presented with a multi-tiered cake for his 81st birthday.

The pair met privately in the Oval Office and talked about a number of other topics, including the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Lebanon, the struggle against poverty and pandemics in Africa, and immigration.

The pope then left the White House for a brief tour of Washington, Secret Service agents flanking the Popemobile as crowds on the sidewalks cheered.

Protesters scattered along the route, some hoisting signs or lecturing over megaphones. A group of atheists gathered at Lafayette Park, across from the White House, and some evangelists at a nearby traffic circle proclaimed Catholicism to be evil.

But Wednesday's scene primarily was one of prayerful joy, where groups of the faithful clapped and danced in circles, played bongo drums and tambourines and sang hymns of hallelujahs.

Many had seen John Paul II 30 years ago and were eager to see his successor.

Benedict rode down Pennsylvania Avenue smiling broadly, waving his right hand first to one side of the street, then to the other. Onlookers cheered and raised cell phones and small cameras to take his picture. Parents lifted babies skyward. There were shouts of "Viva el Papa!"

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