WASHINGTON?There were no harsh words, no scolding from the pulpit.
But the message Pope Benedict XVI delivered to Roman Catholic bishops in the United States was stark: The scourge of clergy sex abuse had sometimes been ?very badly handled? and the scandal had caused enormous pain as the result of priests betraying their vocation by sexually abusing minors with such ?gravely immoral behavior.?
Benedict?s comments after evening worship Wednesday were his toughest critique yet of the US Church?s worst problem.
Bishops must restore morale in the priesthood, the Pope said, comparing the pain and embarrassment of innocent clergy to ?Christ in his Passion.?
Feted on his 81st birthday, the German-born Pope began his first full day in America with a visit to the White House, where President George W. Bush welcomed him with a 21-gun salute, famed soprano Kathleen Battle sang a soaring ?Lord?s Prayer,? and an enthralled crowd of more than 13,500 sang ?Happy Birthday? twice.
The love in the audience was evident.
?How often in life do you get to sing happy birthday to the Pope?? said Brenda Hawk, a Sunday school teacher. ?Even if you?re not Catholic, it?s darn cool!?
On a glorious spring day, lampposts fluttered with flags in the red-white-and-blue of America and yellow-and-white of the Holy See. The vast South Lawn was filled nearly to bursting with the largest crowd of Bush?s presidency, requiring a large television screen so those further back could see.
People waved little Vatican and US flags, as cries of ?viva il Papa!? (Long live the Pope) mingled with the two national anthems.
It was the kind of pomp and pageantry rarely seen even on grounds accustomed to welcoming royalty and the world?s most important leaders.
Benedict seemed genuinely moved.
Thousands unable to get inside filled Washington?s streets as well, playing music and waving banners as they waited for a hoped-for glimpse of the Pontiff passing by later in his popemobile.
?Bind up the wounds?
Later, at a private lunch with American cardinals at the Vatican Embassy, the Pope was shown in a photo released by the Vatican standing before a four-tier white cake with a single candle atop it.
The South Lawn arrival ceremony was followed by 45 minutes of private talks between Bush and Benedict alone in the Oval Office.
After visiting the White House and praying with Bush, the Pope dedicated a section of his speech to the bishops to the scandal that rocked the Church starting in 2002 and has forced US dioceses to pay over $2 billion in damages.
?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.
He said he agreed with an assessment by the head of the US bishops conference that the crisis had been ?sometimes very badly handled? and that only recently was ?the scale and the gravity of the problem? more clearly understood.
The Church was criticized for transferring known abusers rather than defrocking them or turning them over to police.
As is often the case with papal comments, Benedict made the point indirectly.
In his remarks at the imposing Immaculate Conception shrine, he acknowledged the extensive reforms the bishops had enacted in the last several years to protect children and keep predators out of parishes. And he noted that abuse was a ?scourge? in every part of society, not just in the Church.
Church must do better
Advocates for victims have complained bitterly that no bishops have been disciplined for failing to warn parents and police about abusers.
Russell Shaw, a consultant to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, said Benedict could not ?engage in wholesale firings? of bishops. But he said the Pope?s remarks underscored that he wanted Church leaders to do better.
Benedict?s remarks came on a day when all of the five Catholic justices on the US Supreme Court approved the most widely used method of lethal injection, and congressional representatives who support abortion rights said they planned to take Holy Communion on Thursday at a papal Mass.
Benedict addressed clerical molesters in the wider context of secularism and the over-sexualization of America.
?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 asked.
He called for efforts ?to address the sin of abuse within the wider context of sexual mores.?
Welcoming the Pope, Bush said that the first papal White House visit in 29 years was a reminder for Americans to ?distinguish between simple right and wrong.?
?We need your message to reject this dictatorship of relativism and embrace a culture of justice and truth,? Bush said.
It was the 25th meeting between the leader of the world?s Roman Catholic and a US president, sessions that have spanned 89 years, five pontiffs and 11 American leaders.
Bush and Benedict agreed that terrorism was an unacceptable weapon for any cause or religion. They also share common ground in opposing terrorism, abortion, gay marriage and embryonic stem cell research.
On Iraq, discussion between the Pope and Bush steered away from the war itself to focus primarily on worries for the Christian minority in the Muslim-majority country, said White House press secretary Dana Perino.
Reject use of religion for violence
?The two reaffirmed their total rejection of terrorism as well as the manipulation of religion to justify immoral and violent acts against innocents,? the statement said.
Outside the White House, some 200 people protested. With one demonstrator dressed as the pope, the crowd held signs criticizing celibacy and a large banner reading ?100,000 sexually abused kids in the US.?
But the overwhelming number of those who lined his motorcade route welcomed the Pope with joy, dancing and shaking tambourines.
The Boston cover-up
The US church was plunged into the worst crisis in its 200-year history in 2002 when the Archbishop of Boston confessed he had protected a priest who had sexually abused young members of his church.
Last year, 689 new allegations of abuse were lodged, and the church paid out $615 million to settle child sex abuse cases involving members of the clergy?54 percent more than the previous year?the annual progress report said.
On Thursday, celebrating the first public Mass of his US pilgrimage before tens of thousands at the new Washington Nationals baseball stadium, Benedict urged US Catholics to renew their faith and condemned the ?tragic? sexual abuse of children by priests.
He was greeted by an enthusiastic roar from the crowd of 48,000 and joyous singing by four choirs, led by celebrated tenor Placido Domingo, as he arrived at the ballpark in his popemobile.