Apr 16, 2008

A hearty welcome, a contrite tone

Michael Paulson
Boston Globe
April 16, 2008

Benedict decries abuse by priests as cause of a 'great suffering'

ANDREWS AIR FORCE BASE, Md. - Pope Benedict XVI, his white robes billowing in a cool breeze, arrived yesterday for his historic first visit to the United States, setting a contrite tone before he even touched down by telling reporters aboard his plane that the Catholic Church is "deeply ashamed" by the abuse crisis that has roiled American Catholicism.

The pope's remarks, in which he also said that "for me personally" abuse by priests "is a great suffering," were by far the most direct and emotional offered by a pope in the six years since the abuse crisis erupted in Boston. Benedict himself chose to address the issue en route to the United States, putting to rest questions about whether and how he might deal with the controversy.

He arrived at Andrews Air Force Base at 3:50 p.m., his chartered Alitalia Boeing 777, dubbed Shepherd One for the duration of his trip, descending from a cloudless sky to a round of cheers from a crowd of about 1,000 well-wishers who spent several hours waiting for a chance to get a glimpse of the spiritual leader of the world's 1 billion Catholics.

The pope, his head-to-toe white vestments punctuated only by his red loafers, was welcomed by President Bush, his wife, Laura, and their daughter Jenna. The pope's arrival marked the first time Bush traveled to the airport to welcome a visiting leader, and the warm welcome will continue today, as the largest White House crowd of the Bush presidency - more than 9,000 people are expected - is to gather on the South Lawn to welcome the pope to a meeting with the president.

At the air base yesterday, the pope smiled and wiggled his fingers as he waved toward the crowd, but he did not approach the stands packed with children and adults waving the yellow and white flags of the Holy See alongside the stars and stripes of the United States. The pope also did not kiss the ground, a practice of his predecessor, John Paul II, that Benedict has discontinued.

"I've lived to be 68, and I'm finally getting to see a pope," said Joyce Kearney, an Arlington native who now lives in Laurel, Md. "This is such a blessing to be here."

Air Force Tech Sergeant Jennifer Taylor, 29, of New Bedford, called the arrival ceremony "a once in a lifetime opportunity, to see the pope and the president," while Vincent Harrington, a 16-year-old high school junior from Maryland, was delighted with the photos he had snapped on his cellphone, saying, "It was amazing, and I got so many good pictures."

As the pontiff walked along a red carpet rolled up to the forward door of the plane, he greeted a variety of prelates before walking with Bush into a terminal where he waited for the 24-vehicle motorcade that whisked the pope and his entourage into Washington. The pope, who will celebrate his 81st birthday today, was to spend the night at the Embassy Row residence of the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, who is the Vatican's ambassador to the United States.

The pope is to remain in the country through Sunday. He will say two Masses for large crowds, at the new Nationals Park in Washington tomorrow and at Yankee Stadium in New York on Sunday. He will also make an important speech to the United Nations on Friday.

At the White House today, the pope and the president are expected to talk, at least in part, about extremism, "especially in the Muslim world," terrorism, and religious freedom, as well as about problems in Africa and in Lebanon, White House spokeswoman DanaPerino said at a press briefing yesterday. Perino acknowledged that the president and the pope disagree about the Iraq war and capital punishment - both of which Bush supports and Benedict opposes - but said "there is much more agreement between these two leaders than there is disagreement."

The question of how Benedict would handle the abuse crisis has lingered over the trip, the first papal visit to the United States since the crisis exploded in 2002. That summer, John Paul II conspicuously skipped over the United States during a trip that took him to Canada and Mexico; in planning this year's trip, Benedict rebuffed repeated invitations to come to Boston, apparently in part because of a concern that the city's close association with the abuse crisis would dominate coverage of his visit.

But Benedict's aides had made it clear that he would address the crisis, possibly more than once, during his visit, which includes stops only in Washington and New York. The apostolic nuncio also has said it is possible that he will meet with abuse victims, although no such meetings are on his official schedule.

Benedict did choose to address the issue head-on yesterday, as the plane winged its way from Rome's Fiumicio airport across the Atlantic. Benedict agreed to answer four questions on board that had been pre-submitted by members of the Vatican press corps traveling with him. Abuse was the first issue the pope addressed, and the only one in English; he also fielded questions in Italian about immigration, about the comparative roles of religion in the United States and Europe, and about the themes for his visit. Reporters aboard the plane filed stories based on his remarks from midair, so the abuse comments arrived hours before the pope did.

"It is a great suffering for the church in the United States, for the church in general, and for me personally that this could happen," Benedict said. "If I read the histories of these victims, it's difficult for me to understand how it was possible that priests betrayed in this way their mission to give healing and to give the love of God to these children. We are deeply ashamed, and we will do all that is possible that this cannot happen in the future."

His remarks did not satisfy victims and their advocates, who said they wanted him to take more steps in response to the crisis. DavidClohessy, the national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said he would rather see Benedict take two steps: "discipline complicit bishops" and impose sex abuse prevention measures globally, rather than just in the United States.
"On the one hand, it's always beneficial when clergy sex abuse is discussed and not ignored, but on the other hand, no one should confuse talk with action," Clohessy said. "Sincere intentions, genuine remorse are good but inadequate. And for decades Benedict has been an extraordinarily powerful Vatican official with tremendous power to do good and protect kids, and that power remains largely unused."
Benedict is highly familiar with the abuse crisis, because in his previous post as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he was responsible for reviewing the cases of abusive priests who the Vatican was considering defrocking. His record on handling abuse cases is mixed and controversial - at one point he dramatically underestimated the scope of the abuse - but he attracted notice by appearing to describe abusive priests as "filth" at a Good Friday liturgy in 2005, and as pope he barred from ministry the Rev. Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, who was an alleged abuser who was not disciplined by John Paul II.

Benedict said yesterday that the abuse crisis should be dealt with on three levels: by barring abusive priests from ministry, by offering help to victims, and by better screening candidates for the priesthood. Although Benedict has been viewed as a critic of gay men as candidates for the priesthood, yesterday he made it clear that he was not equating homosexuality with abusiveness.

"I would not speak in this moment about homosexuality, but pedophilia, [which] is another thing," he said. "We will absolutely exclude pedophiles from the sacred ministry, this is absolutely incompatible. And who is really guilty of being a pedophile cannot be a priest."

Benedict described the abuse scandal as a "wound," and spoke of the importance of "reconciliation," saying, "we hope that we can do, and we have done, and we will do in the future, all that is possible to heal this wound."

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com

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