On a day filled with pageantry and prayer, Pope Benedict XVI focused Wednesday on the sexual-abuse scandal afflicting the Roman Catholic Church, offering an unflinching acknowledgment that the crisis was mishandled by church officials and that victims deserve care and compassion.
The pope, speaking to Catholic bishops at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Roman Catholic church in North America, used some of his strongest language to date to condemn the sexual-abuse scandal and its enduring damage.
He urged the bishops to “strive to eliminate this evil wherever it occurs” and to give priority to care for the victims “of such gravely immoral behavior” by clerics who “betrayed their priestly obligations.”
“It is your God-given responsibility as pastors to bind up the wounds caused by every breach of trust, to foster healing, to promote reconciliation and to reach out with loving concern to those so seriously wronged,” he said.
The pope referred to what he called the “deep shame” of the sexual-abuse crisis that he said has inflicted “enormous pain” on Catholic communities across the nation.
Benedict also praised the role played by immigrants in bringing new life to the faith and advocated for their humane treatment. He lamented the weakened state of marriage in America, condemned secularism and urged that the practice of Catholicism infuse and inform public policy.
The pope, who later today will hold the first open-air Mass during his six-day pilgrimage to the U.S. East Coast, enjoyed a lavish ceremony at the White House on Wednesday, complete with birthday songs marking his turning 81 and a friendly meeting with President Bush.
More than 13,000 guests from various parts of the country crowded onto the White House South Lawn to hear Bush and the pope deliver remarkably in-sync comments on the importance of faith in public life and praise for an American democracy that nurtures it.
“The preservation of freedom calls for the cultivation of virtue, self-discipline, sacrifice for the common good and a sense of responsibility toward the less fortunate,” Benedict said. “It also demands the courage to engage in civic life and to bring one’s deepest beliefs and values to reasoned public debate.”
In his formal greetings, Bush said: “We need your message to reject this dictatorship of relativism and embrace a culture of justice and truth. In a world where some see freedom as simply the right to do as they wish, we need your message that true liberty requires us to live our freedom not just for ourselves.”
After a celebration that lasted more than an hour, complete with the U.S. Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps outfitted in colonial garb and opera soprano Kathleen Battle belting out a rendition of “Happy Birthday,” Bush and Benedict went inside for private talks in the Oval Office.
During a 45-minute meeting, they discussed issues including immigration, the Middle East, and the need to fight poverty and pandemics, especially in Africa, according to a joint statement. They also discussed “the need to confront terrorism with appropriate means that respect the human person and his or her rights,” a likely allusion to criticism by Benedict of the U.S. use of harsh interrogation techniques.
Benedict later traveled to the basilica inside his popemobile past thousands of well-wishers lining the streets. The bulletproof windows were rolled down to give spectators a better view of the pontiff.
By emphasizing the wrongness of the sexual-abuse scandal on the first two days of his U.S. tour, the pope is attempting to signal the importance he attaches to the issue and that he is determined not to shy away from it. Church leaders have come under withering criticism in the past for failing to effectively confront the thousands of abuse cases and for allowing accused priests to avoid prosecution.
“Responding to this situation has not been easy,” the pope told the bishops. “It is vitally important that the vulnerable always be shielded from those who would cause harm. In this regard, 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 suggested that the crisis has occurred at a time when society devalues human dignity and distorts the role of sexuality through pornography and violence.
Children, he said, must be taught “authentic moral values” and spared “the degrading manifestations and the rude manipulation of sexuality so prevalent today.”
In addition to thousands of victims, the pope said priests, too, needed special guidance and counsel to repair damage to the church, its credibility and its ability to carry out its mission.
Priests “have experienced shame over what has occurred, and there are those who feel they have lost some of the trust and esteem they once enjoyed,” he said.
Benedict said the bishops must guide by example, leading spiritually holy lives that can be emulated by priests and reassuring to the faithful.
“When the faithful know that their pastor is a man who prays and who dedicates his life to serving them, they respond with warmth and affection which nourishes and sustains the life of the whole community,” he said.
His remarks won praise from his audience, but one victims group said they fell short.
One bishop, Walter Hurley of Grand Rapids, Mich., said the message was encouraging. “This is a real problem in the church and he addressed it in a realistic way,” Hurley said as he emerged from the basilica ceremony.
“He recognized the problem and said how terrible a tragedy it was. He talked about the mistakes that were made including some bishops who did not handle it well,” Bishop Tod Brown of the Diocese of Orange, Calif., said. “I thought it was very frank and refreshing. I think he realizes it’s a great wound for our church in this country.”
However, Barbara Dorris of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests said the pope ignored what the group maintains was a systematic practice by many senior clergy of stonewalling police and investigators to protect abusive priests.
Benedict touched on other critical issues facing the church. He urged the bishops to continue to welcome immigrants, to minister to their sorrows and trials and to help them flourish in their adopted homes. The influx of Latino immigrants, especially, has helped fill pews in American Catholic churches, and surveys have shown that Latino Catholics tend to be more traditional in their practice of the faith.
Sounding a theme prominent in his three-year papacy, Benedict warned against a secularism that erodes genuine religious spirit and said it is not enough to profess Christianity on Sunday and not practice it in daily public and private life. “Any tendency to treat religion as a private matter must be resisted,” he said.
In that vein, the pope continued, advances in medical science bring new hope to the sick and infirm but also raise unimaginable ethical dilemmas.
“Clearly, the church’s influence on public debate takes place on many different levels,” he said. “In the United States, as elsewhere, there is much current and proposed legislation that gives cause for concern from the point of view of morality, and the Catholic community, under your guidance, needs to offer a clear and united witness on such matters.”
Times staff writer James Gerstenzang contributed to this report.