- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 19, 2007

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI is expected to visit Washington early next year during an apostolic journey to the United States that will feature a speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Vatican sources say.

The Vatican formally has offered no details of the trip other than confirming that Benedict plans to speak at the United Nations in April.

But various reports, sparked by a report from the Catholic News Agency, which is closely linked to the U.S. Bishops Conference, suggested an April 15 to 20 itinerary with stops in Boston and possibly Baltimore, as well as New York and Washington.

The Catholic News Agency said the pope will begin his tour in Washington, stop in New York for a Mass in Central Park and a moment of reflection at ground zero and conclude in Boston.

Some reports — such as one in Whispers in the Loggia, a popular Catholic blog — said Benedict will visit Boston on April 20, the day before the Boston Marathon, partly to heal the wounds of the priestly sexual-abuse scandal there.

The scandal forced the resignation of Archbishop Cardinal Bernard F. Law, who subsequently was effectively exiled to a largely ceremonial post at the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome.

A number of dioceses have invited the pope since the Vatican disclosed he will address the United Nations at the invitation of the worldwide body’s Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. “There have been so many cities mentioned as possible stops on the trip that he cannot possibly visit them all,” said one Vatican source.

Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Washington, said she heard speculation in published reports and blogs that Pope Benedict might visit several U.S. cities, including Washington. But as exciting as a papal visit to nation’s capital would be, “that’s not confirmed,” she said.

Similarly, Boston Archdiocese spokesman Terence C. Donilon said that talk about a visit to the archdiocese “is just speculation.”

However the Vatican source, who asked not to be identified, said Washington is “the most likely” city for the 80-year-old leader of the world’s Roman Catholics to visit during his U.S. sojourn.

The last papal visit to the Washington region came in 1995, when Pope John Paul II celebrated a morning Mass with more than 50,000 enthusiastic worshippers at Baltimore’s Camden Yards.

Following the two-hour ceremony, the pontiff rode his “popemobile” through the streets of Baltimore in a parade led by a flying wedge of 14 motorcycle police. Maryland is considered the cradle of American Catholicism.

This visit, however, has a more serious purpose. The pope is known to be concerned about the impact sex-abuse scandals have had on the church worldwide, and the battered morale of American Catholicism is sure to be a theme of his visit.

In July, the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles agreed to pay $660 million to 500 victims of sexual abuse dating back as far as the 1940s.

The pontiff last year disciplined the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the 86-year-old founder of the conservative Legionaries of Christ, who was accused of sexually abusing boys decades ago.

The action was seen by some Vatican watchers as an attempt by Benedict to take a tough new line on sexual abuse in a way that was impossible for the Holy See during the illness that debilitated John Paul in his final years.

Benedict indicated in his first months on St. Peter’s throne that he did not intend to emulate the punishing travel schedule that John Paul adopted for much of his reign.

Benedict told aides he wanted to leave Rome rarely, but after making a successful trip to Turkey last year, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger acquired a taste for travel that has surprised even himself, Vatican sources said.

In addition to the United States, the pope is expected to go to France next year and to Australia for World Youth Day.

At an open-air meeting for half a million young people at the Italian pilgrimage city of Loreto last month, Benedict showed his interest in rekindling the special relationship John Paul enjoyed with youth from around the world.

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