Pontiff Returns to Abuse Scandal In Homily at St. Patrick's in N.Y.

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 20, 2008

NEW YORK, April 19 -- On the third anniversary of his election to the throne of St. Peter, Pope Benedict XVI became the first pontiff to celebrate Mass at historic St. Patrick's Cathedral, using Saturday's occasion to address again the child sexual abuse by priests that has dominated much of his U.S. trip.

In a homily focusing on the theme of hope, Benedict assured the Catholic clergy tarred by the scandal that he remained close to them and said, "This will be a time of purification for each and every particular church and religious community, and a time for healing."

"I simply wish to assure you, dear priests and religious, of my spiritual closeness as you strive to respond with Christian hope to the continuing challenges this situation presents," the pope said to about 3,000 worshipers, mostly clergy members and some invited dignitaries gathered at the Gothic cathedral.

To the clergy, he added, "I also encourage you to cooperate with your bishops, who continue to work effectively to resolve this issue."

Benedict's first trip to the United States as pope has been largely dominated by the sexual abuse scandal, which has cost the church some $2 billion in settlements and stained the American church because of its handling of the complaints. More than 5,000 priests have been accused of sexually abusing some 12,000 children in the United States in cases going back five decades. Hundreds of priests have been removed from their positions, and a half-dozen dioceses have declared bankruptcy.

Benedict has gone much further than his predecessor, John Paul II, in directly addressing the scandal and acknowledging the damage done to the church. He began to focus attention on the issue from the beginning of this trip, on his plane ride to Washington, and he continued to highlight the scandal by meeting with victims of past abuse.

At St. Patrick's, the pope paid homage to the historic cathedral, which has seen such past momentous occasions as the funerals of Babe Ruth and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. In his homily, he pointed out the stained glass windows and the 330-foot spires.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who is Jewish, gave opening remarks and reminded the audience that it was also Passover. He thanked the pontiff for bringing the beautiful spring weather to New York.

Also in attendance was former mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. The thrice-married Catholic told the Reuters news service on his way out of the cathedral that he had taken communion during the service, despite the church's ban on the divorced and remarried doing so.

After the mass at St. Patrick's, the pope, riding in his bulletproof white Mercedes Popemobile and surrounded by a phalanx of security men, traveled about 20 blocks up Fifth Avenue past thousands of cheering onlookers, some of whom waited for hours. They snapped photographs and waved white-and-gold Vatican flags.

Later Saturday afternoon, the pope traveled by motorcade 20 miles north to the suburb of Yonkers, for a rally of about 20,000 young people at St. Joseph's Seminary. The visit was designed to allow the pope to speak directly to young people and seminarians, at a time when the Catholic church is struggling to find new priests and to keep Catholic youth interested in the faith.

At St. Joseph's, the pope made a brief stop at the chapel of Sts. Peter and Paul, where he blessed 50 children with disabilities and their caregivers, and listened to hymns from a deaf choir. The pontiff walked up and down the chapel aisle, hugging and touching the faces of the children, many of them in wheelchairs.

The crowd at the rally chanted, cheered and waved white-and-gold towels in a scene more like a rock concert than a religious event. The 81-year-old pontiff he received a series of gifts, and the crowd serenaded him with "Happy Birthday" in German. He thanked the throng and said, "I give you an A-plus for your German pronunciation."

The pope told the young people, "You are offered many opportunities for personal development." But he warned them, "Freedom is a delicate value. It can be misunderstood or misused." He urged them not to be confused by demands for "relativism" and instead to seek the truth, through the teachings of Jesus.

Sunday is the pope's final day on U.S. soil, and he plans to visit Ground Zero, site of the 2001 World Trade Center attack, and celebrate a Mass for 40,000 people at Yankee Stadium.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company