Pope, in U.S., is 'ashamed' of sex abuse scandals
WASHINGTON: Pope Benedict XVI chose to address bluntly the sex scandal that has torn at the church here even before he landed Tuesday on his first official visit to the United States, saying he was "deeply ashamed" by the actions of pedophile priests.
His comments aboard his plane, in answer to a written question submitted by a reporter and selected by the Vatican, appeared to soothe many Catholics but left others demanding more action than words.
"It's difficult for me to understand how it was possible that priests betrayed in this way their mission to give healing, to give the love of God to these children," the pope said, adding that the church would work to exclude pedophiles from the priesthood.
"It is more important to have good priests than to have many priests," he said.
The words were his strongest ever on the issue, one he clearly wanted to emphasize as he arrived on a five-day visit to Washington and New York. His comments were in response to the first of four questions he answered on the plane ? chosen from 20 the press corps had submitted in advance.
It was unclear whether these would be the last words from Benedict on the issue, which ruptured the faith between parishioners and priests and has cost the church some $2 billion, or whether it was an opening signal of both reconciliation and more to come. Church officials have said they expected the pope to address the scandal more than once during his visit, and there is speculation that he may even meet with some victims.
But victims' advocates clearly were not satisfied by the comments.
"He talks about feeling shame for the scandal but it's a far cry from the shame that victims have had to live with our entire lives," said Becky Ianni, 50, who said she was abused by her parish priest in Alexandria, Va., from age 9 to 11.
She was speaking at a vigil outside St. Dominic Church in Washington when the pope's plane landed just before 4 p.m. Those at the vigil held a long vinyl banner with photographs of more than 60 children abused by priests. They explained that the 15 or so faces that were framed with black boxes were those of victims who had committed suicide.
"We don't really need his sense of shame," Ms. Ianni said. "We need him to take firm actions to correct the situation."
One expert said that the pope might actually be signaling that he was close to authorizing a change in canon law that would explicitly bar sexual abusers from the priesthood, said Nicholas P. Cafardi, dean emeritus of Duquesne Law School. A civil and canon lawyer, Mr. Cafardi was an original member of the National Review Board appointed by the American bishops at the height of the abuse scandal, in 2002.
There is a section in the church's Code of Canon law that specifies that a man cannot be ordained a priest, or cannot remain a priest, if he has committed certain acts, like homicide, self-mutilation, attempted suicide or procuring an abortion, said Mr. Cafardi, the author of "Before Dallas: The U.S. Bishops' Response to Clergy Sexual Abuse of Children" (Paulist Press, 2008).
"It's time to add to that list pedophilia and sexual abuse of children," Mr. Cafardi said. "I'm reading Benedict's remarks as heading toward a change in the law of the universal church, so that this can be implemented throughout the Catholic world."
He said it was unlikely that the pope would use a papal visit to announce a change in canon law. But, he added: "He's raised expectations now, and he's not an unkind person. You don't raise expectations to bash them."
Mathew N. Schmalz, an associate professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross, a Jesuit institution in Worcester, Mass., said Benedict's remarks on the plane were significant because they represented a change in tone.
"He was reputed, at least during the tenure of John Paul II, to be uncomfortable with the church apologizing for the sins of its past," Professor Schmalz said. "But quite clearly, here he is offering if not a mea culpa, then a sincere statement of regret for what happened, and taking responsibility for the church's role."
The timing of the pope's remarks is also important, Professor Schmalz said.
"He's putting it out there right away, and so he is setting the tone," he said. "He recognizes there is no way for him to avoid this issue, so he's addressing it."
Benedict is the third pope to travel to the United States. Pope Paul VI visited once, in 1965; John Paul II made seven trips to the United States.
President Bush traveled to Andrews Air Force Base to meet Benedict, whose visit is clearly an event of some pomp and great celebration for many of America's 64 million Catholics.
The white-haired pope, dressed in his traditional white vestments and red shoes, stepped off the Alitalia Boeing 777 and greeted a crowd with a two-handed salute. Because of the wind, he had taken off his zucchetto, his white skullcap, and carried it until he reached the red carpet, where President Bush, his wife, Laura, and daughter Jenna were waiting.
Several hundred spectators waved yellow and white Vatican pennants and sang "Happy Birthday" to Benedict, a native of Germany who turns 81 on Wednesday.
Neither the pope nor the president made any public comments, and the pope retired immediately to the residence of the nuncio, the Vatican's ambassador to the United States.
The official meeting between the pope and the president is scheduled for Wednesday morning at the White House. Dana Perino, a White House spokeswoman, told reporters here that the president and pope would discuss human rights, fighting extremism in the Muslim world, Lebanon and hunger in Africa.
On the plane, the pope said he also planned to raise the issue of immigration, contentious in America, but on which the Vatican has clear opinions. Among his concerns, he said, is the "grave problem of separation of families."
"This really is dangerous to the fabric ? social, moral, human ? of these countries," he said, adding that where it was possible to reunite families, it should be done.
In the longer-term, the pope said, the solution is creating enough development in poor countries "so there would be no need to immigrate because there would be sufficient jobs."
"On this point I will also speak with the president because, above all, the United States must help countries to develop themselves in the interests of everyone, not only of these countries but of the world and even the United States," he said.
The Vatican did not signal that Iraq ? an issue on which the Vatican and the Bush administration have disagreed ? would be part of the agenda.
Ms. Perino said she did not expect it to be brought up. "Obviously there was a difference of opinion back in 2003 and beyond, in subsequent years," she said. "But now I think that there is an understanding that with the strategy that's working in Iraq right now, the most important thing we can do is help to solidify the situation."
After three days in Washington during which he will meet with Catholic educators and celebrate Mass at Nationals Park, he will travel to New York on Friday to address the United Nations.
On the plane, he said he would speak on the importance of human rights.
Benedict, who has often spoken favorably about how Americans observe their religious beliefs, was also asked, on the plane, whether he felt America could serve as a model for a Europe, which is far more secularized.
"Certainly Europe can't simply copy the United States," he said. "We have our own history." But he said the United States was interesting because it "started with the positive idea of secularism."
"This new people was made of communities that had escaped official state purges and wanted a lay state, a secular state that opened the possibility for all confessions and all form of religious exercise," he added. "Therefore it was a state that was intentionally secular. It was the exact opposite of state religion, but it was secular out of love for religion and for an authenticity that can only be lived freely."