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Pope Praises U.S. Bishops' 'Efforts to Heal' After Abuse Scandals

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 17, 2008

While flying from Rome to the United States, Pope Benedict XVI told reporters aboard Shepherd One, his Alitalia airliner, that he was "deeply ashamed" of pedophilia in the priesthood. But in more extensive remarks yesterday, he said sexual abuse of children is found "in every sector of society" and suggested that U.S. bishops can take pride in being part of the solution.

"Your efforts to heal and protect are bearing great fruit not only for those directly under your pastoral care, but for all of society," Benedict told 300 U.S. bishops at an evening prayer service at the Basilica of the National Shrine.

The pope's remarks renewed debate over a contention that has sometimes been made by U.S. Catholic leaders -- that the Church does not have more of a problem with sexual abuse than do public schools or youth groups and that the Church has just been more forthright in confronting it.

Sex abuse victims rebutted that argument, saying the essence of the scandal is not that priests molested children, but that for years bishops covered up the crimes, moving predators among parishes without notifying police, the public or pastors.

"This was the first time the pope has publicly looked directly into the faces of the men responsible for the coverup of sex crimes in churches all across this country," said Peter J. Isely of Milwaukee, who was abused in a Wisconsin seminary in the mid-1970s. "Instead of reprimanding them, he praised them, which is . . . the exact opposite of what the vast majority of American Catholics feel about their bishops."

Benedict said sex abuse was sometimes handled badly by the Church hierarchy. But he also said the scandal should be seen "within the wider context of sexual mores," including pornography and violence in popular culture.

"We need to reassess urgently the values underpinning society, so that a sound moral formation can be offered to young people and adults alike," the pope said. "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."

Monsignor Steve Rossetti, a priest and psychologist, hailed the pope's remarks as "a challenge to society -- if you're really committed to dealing with this problem, you've got to do it throughout society, not just in the church."

Four years ago, a study commissioned by the U.S. bishops found that about 5,000 U.S. priests, or 4 percent of all who have served since 1950, have been credibly accused of abusing minors.

"That study demonstrated to me that the problem is really no greater in the Catholic Church than anywhere else," said Rossetti, who heads the St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, which treats priests for psychological problems.

Rossetti said no comparable figures are available for the percentage of abusers in other walks of life, such as schoolteachers and scoutmasters. But he said that "anyone working in the field would say it's got to be at least 4 percent of adult males in the United States, and that's another point in favor of the church. At least we came up with some numbers."

Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea, a psychologist in Charlotte who works with sex abuse victims, called the pope's comments "depressing."

"On the one hand, he's correct that sexual abuse is a problem found throughout society. He's even right that clergy abuse represents a relatively small percentage of all sexual abuse cases -- about 45 percent are abused by family members, 45 percent by other people they know and 10 percent by strangers," she said. "But as usual, the hierarchy of the church is completely missing the boat, because the hierarchy in fact enabled abuse."

O'Dea was one of four lay people invited by the U.S. bishops to address them in 2002 in Dallas, where they adopted a charter calling for the permanent removal of abusers.

She noted that aboard Shepherd One, Benedict said the Church must prevent pedophiles from entering seminaries. The idea that the Church can keep sex abusers out of the priesthood is "absurd, because there is no known test . . . that will allow them to do that," she said.

"The central problem has never been sexual abuse by priests," O'Dea said. "The issue has been when a child or a parent reports abuse, what is the response?"

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