WASHINGTON – Pope Benedict XVI, embarking on his first visit to the United States as pontiff, said Tuesday he was “deeply ashamed” of the sexual abuse scandal that has shaken the Roman Catholic Church in this country and pledged greater efforts by the church to bar pedophiles from the priesthood.
Speaking to reporters aboard his plane from Rome, the pope made his most extensive comments about the abuse crisis to date, saying the scandal that erupted in the United States in 2002 had caused “great suffering” for the church, and for “me personally.”
Hours later, the pope, who turns 81 today, was welcomed at Andrews Air Force base outside Washington by President Bush, in what the White House said was an unprecedented show of deference by the president for a foreign leader.
The white-haired Benedict, waving and smiling broadly, was met at the foot of the Alitalia airliner’s stairs by the president, first lady Laura Bush and their daughter Jenna, along with about 200 officials and invited guests.
There were no public statements made or planned; the pope and president are scheduled to hold private discussions at the White House today after an official welcoming ceremony that may draw as many as 9,000 guests to the South Lawn.
Benedict’s six-day visit to Washington and New York is the first by a pope to the U.S. since revelations of clergy sexual abuse were first made in Boston and later spread to dioceses across the country. The scandal, in which thousands of victims alleged they had been molested or raped by priests, has cost the church more than $2 billion in legal settlements to date, bankrupted five dioceses and shattered families and parishes across the country. Many of the victims were children at the time of the abuse.
“We are deeply ashamed,” the pope said in his comments to reporters on the plane. “We will do what is possible so this cannot happen again in the future.”
Speaking in English and other languages as he answered four questions chosen from those submitted by reporters before the flight, Benedict said it was difficult for him to understand priests who had betrayed their sacred trust by molesting children and said the church was working to identify and exclude any seminary candidates who might harbor such tendencies.
“It is more important to have good priests than many priests,” he said. “We will do everything possible to heal this wound.”
A spokesman for one victims group, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said he appreciated the pope’s words but hoped for more.
“Talk is cheap; action is better,” David Clohessy, national director of the group, said in an interview. “He’s been pope for three years and a top Vatican official for three decades. Expressions of remorse and promises of reform … ring pretty hollow at this point.”
No meeting with victims is scheduled at this point, although Vatican officials have hinted that one may occur, perhaps informally and in private. Such a session with the church’s highest leader could be healing, for at least some victims and perhaps the American church, one analyst said.
“If that were to happen and was perceived as a heartfelt, sorrowful expression of solidarity and remorse in the collective sense, that could be very significant,” said R. Scott Appleby, professor of American religious history at the University of Notre Dame.
Benedict, who will mark the third anniversary of his pontificate this week, also signaled Tuesday that he plans to raise the controversial issue of immigration during his visit. He told reporters that he was especially concerned about what he called the grave problem of families separated by immigration policies and about border violence.
Another subject that may arise during his White House session is the Iraq war, which the pontiff has strongly opposed. But the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, Mary Ann Glendon, said that she did not expect the pope to confront the president directly on the war. More likely, she said, Benedict and Bush would discuss their mutual interest in “strengthening the global moral consensus against terrorism, especially confronting the problem of religion being used for terrorist violence.”
Benedict’s practice “is usually to find and encourage what he considers to be positive developments,” said Glendon, who was among the dignitaries who greeted him at Andrews.
In an earlier news briefing, White House press secretary Dana M. Perino also said she did not expect the subject of the war to dominate the two leaders’ discussions.
Perino said the president was likely to raise topics in which “they have a shared commitment and shared values, such as human rights and individual dignity, (and) their work together to combat extremist ideology, especially in the Muslim world.” She said the president also was interested in the pope’s efforts to foster interfaith dialogue.
The pope is also scheduled to visit ground zero and to address the United Nations during his visit. In New York, nearly 2,000 international staffers formed a line as long as a city block down the halls of the U.N. headquarters to get tickets for limited seats for the pope’s Friday speech to the General Assembly.
The 20-minute address is expected to focus on universal values and human rights and have a strong anti-war message, though it won’t specifically touch on the Iraq war, said Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Vatican’s representative at the U.N.
Benedict will first meet with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, to discuss reduction of poverty, climate change and dialogue among civilizations.
“We are facing many challenges these days,” Ban said Tuesday. “We need really strong spiritual support from the pope. I am really looking forward to meeting him on Friday.”