By Michael E. Ruane and Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 17, 2008
Pope Benedict XVI was greeted with pealing church bells, adoring throngs and gorgeous spring weather yesterday during a historic journey across the District that took him from the green expanse of the South Lawn of the White House to the stone steps of one of the city's most spectacular churches.
The diminutive white-haired man in white cassock and red shoes walked with clasped hands and spoke in a soft German accent about his dismay concerning the Church's clergy child abuse scandal and his preference for diplomacy over conflict.
Marking his 81st birthday in a whirlwind transit of the capital, the pope was welcomed by President Bush at the White House, by thousands of flag-waving spectators along his motorcade routes and by hundreds of black-clad bishops and cardinals at the majestic Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Northeast.
He said the abuse of minors by U.S. clergy was "evil" and "immoral" but had to be eradicated in a broader attack on the degradation of modern-day sexuality.
He also spoke of his overall admiration for the United States "from the dawn of the republic," he said at the White House. "America's quest for freedom has been guided by the conviction that the principles governing political and social life are intimately linked to a moral order based on the dominion of God the Creator."
Later, he spoke intensely of the sex-abuse scandal to church leaders assembled in the Basilica's lower-level Crypt Church.
It was the second day in a row that the pope assailed the scandal that has engulfed the U.S. Catholic Church in recent years, and he told church leaders that it is their "God-given responsibility" to heal the resulting wounds and restore shattered trust.
The pope also seconded the words of Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who said in introducing the pontiff that the scandal was "sometimes very badly handled."
"It falls to you . . . to address the sin of abuse within the wider context of sexual mores," Benedict told the church leaders. "Moreover, by acknowledging and confronting the problem when it occurs in an ecclesial setting, you can give a lead to others, since this scourge is found not only within your dioceses but in every sector of society. It calls for a determined, collective response."
But he said earlier that an even broader response is needed.
"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. . . . What does it mean to speak of child protection when pornography and violence can be viewed in so many homes through media widely available today?"
He received a standing ovation at the end of his speech.
Yesterday, many U.S. Catholics were hearing the pope speak in English for the first time. Despite the pontiff's strong Bavarian accent, some people were surprised by the softness of his voice and his gentle, even shy, demeanor, so at odds with his image as a fierce defender of Catholic orthodoxy.
Benedict's trip is the first visit by a pope to the United States since the sex-abuse scandal erupted six years ago in Boston, where a judge released documents from civil lawsuits showing that Cardinal Bernard F. Law and his subordinate bishops had knowingly shuffled pedophile priests from parish to parish without notifying parishioners or even pastors.
Law resigned as Boston's archbishop in the scandal's wake but remains a cardinal, posted in Rome.
From Boston, the scandal quickly spread, sparking grand jury investigations and a cascade of lawsuits nationwide that have cost the Church about $2 billion and forced a handful of dioceses into bankruptcy. Experts said Benedict's comments yesterday, combined with his remarks on the flight to Washington when he said he was "deeply ashamed" of the scandal, are his sharpest as pope on the issue. On Tuesday, he criticized priests who "betrayed . . . their mission" and vowed to exclude pedophiles from the ministry.
The pope spoke yesterday on the second day of a six-day day visit to the United States, which culminates locally today with a Mass at Nationals Park and an address to Catholic college presidents at Catholic University.
Yesterday, his official day began at the White House with a spectacular welcome indicative of Bush's deep personal attachment. The president considers Benedict a force against what both view as modern-day moral relativism.
About 13,500 guests -- including administration officials and members of Congress, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, priests and workers in Catholic social service organizations -- crowded the South Lawn. It was the first papal visit to the White House in 29 years.
"Here in America," Bush told the pope, "you'll find a nation that welcomes the role of faith in the public square."
The president and the pope steered clear in public of controversial political topics, focusing instead on the role of religion and morality in public life.
In the one gentle exception, the pope offered support for strengthening the United Nations, an institution that has often frustrated Bush, while making clear his preference for negotiations to solve disputes.
Noting the United States' generous role in offering relief to victims of natural catastrophes, Benedict said, "I am confident that this concern for the greater human family will continue to find expression in support for the patient efforts of international diplomacy to resolve conflicts and promote progress."
The president emphasized that the United States does not shy from the proposition that religion should influence public affairs. Bush also paid tribute to Benedict's rejection of a "dictatorship of relativism," saying, "In a world where some treat life as something to be debased and discarded, we need your message that all human life is sacred and . . . each of us is loved."
The White House pulled out all the stops for the pope's arrival ceremony. Famed American soprano Kathleen Battle sang a version of the Lord's Prayer, eliciting enthusiastic applause from Benedict. The pope also received a 21-gun salute as the U.S. Marine Band played the national anthems of the Holy See and the United States.
After brief remarks, the president and the pope, accompanied by first lady Laura Bush, walked up the west steps and proceeded to the balcony next to the Blue Room, where Benedict spread his arms in acknowledgment of the cheers.
Inside the White House, the president offered the pope birthday cake, then they went into the Oval Office for a private meeting.
In Benedict's remarks yesterday morning, he spoke effusively of the United States. "As the nation faces the increasingly complex political and ethical issues of our time," he said, "I am confident that the American people will find in their religious beliefs a precious source of insight . . . in the effort to build a more humane and free society."
In the private meeting, lasting almost an hour and conducted without any aides present, Bush and Benedict had a more detailed discussion of such issues as immigration, the defense and promotion of life, and the struggle against pandemics and poverty, especially in Africa, according to a joint statement from the White House and the Holy See.
There had been speculation that the pope might use the occasion to again raise his concerns about the war in Iraq, but White House press secretary Dana Perino said the president raised the subject first, discussing his concern for the safety of the Christian minority in Iraq, an issue dear to the pope.
The statement said the two men discussed Latin America and immigrants and "the need for a coordinated policy regarding immigration, especially their humane treatment and the well-being of their families."
Staff writers Michelle Boorstein, Alan Cooperman and Michael Abramowitz contributed to this report.