- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI commanded the American stage for the first time yesterday, welcomed by thunderous cheers and a rare presidential airport greeting after declaring that he was “deeply ashamed” by the sex-abuse scandal that rocked the church. The pontiff vowed to do all he can to ensure that priests never harm children again.

“It is a great suffering for the church in the United States and for the church in general and for me personally that this could happen,” he told reporters aboard his plane before arriving at Andrews Air Force Base.

“We will do everything possible to heal this wound. I am deeply ashamed, and we will do what is possible so this cannot happen again in the future. … We will absolutely exclude pedophiles from the sacred ministry,” he said.

His six-day visit was expected to be dogged by questions about the 5,000 priests who sexually abused thousands of boys and cost Catholic dioceses more than $2 billion in settlements.

Gary Bergeron, who was molested by a priest in the 1970s in Massachusetts, called the pope’s comments “a step I’ve been looking for,” Mr. Bergeron said he was disappointed that Benedict did not plan to visit the Archdiocese of Boston, the scene of a case that sparked the greater scandal.

The pope arrived aboard “Shepherd One” just before 4 p.m. at Andrews Air Force Base to kick off a whirlwind U.S. tour that will take the 80-year-old pontiff to a pair of massive Masses at Washington’s Nationals Park and New York’s Yankee Stadium, a stop for prayer at the World Trade Center site in New York and an address to world leaders at the United Nations.

Mr. Bush and Benedict each used both hands to greet one another; Mr. Bush did not kiss the pope’s ring, but bowed slightly.

The pair then walked up the red carpet, through an honor guard — the pope waving with both arms and smiling broadly.

Security was extremely tight, even more so than for a presidential landing at Andrews. Although there have been no threats deemed “credible” by the Secret Service, al Qaeda leaders last month accused Benedict of taking part in a “new crusade” against Muslims. In addition, other Islamic militants previously threatened the pope over his quotation in 2006 of a medieval text condemning Islam’s prophet Muhammad.

The pope had been expected to address the pedophile priest scandal during his visit to America, but he chose to discuss the topic en route from Rome after picking four questions from the Vatican press to answer. Still, he is not expected to grant a request for an audience to victims of predator priests.

The largest group of victims of priests, the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests (SNAP), yesterday called for strong actions, not mere words, from the pope.

“It’s easy and tempting to continually focus on the pedophile priests themselves,” said Peter Isely, a board member of SNAP. “It’s harder but crucial to focus on the broader problem — complicity in the rest of the church hierarchy.”

“We’re way beyond the point at which an apology, a nice gesture, a few soothing words and promises, will be meaningful,” SNAP said in a statement.

The pope could well have some stern words for Mr. Bush when the pair meet today in the White House. The two disagree on such major issues as the Iraq war, capital punishment, immigration and the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

The German-born pontiff has been particularly outspoken in his opposition to the war in Iraq, saying before the U.S. invasion — when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — that a preventive strike could not be justified under Catholic doctrine. In his Easter message last year, Benedict said “nothing positive” comes from the war in Iraq, although he tempered that rhetoric this Easter.

“Obviously, there were differences years back,” White House press secretary Dana Perino said, but added that the pope and the president would likely focus their discussion on human rights, religious tolerance and the fight against violent extremism.

“I think that their shared values are stronger than any disagreements on policy that they may have,” she said.

Mr. Bush and the pope do agree on several issues, including their opposition to abortion, gay marriage and stem-cell research.

Earlier this month, the pontiff said divorce and abortion are offenses in the sight of God, saying they “violate human dignity, inflict deep injustice on human and social relations and offend God himself, guarantor of conjugal peace and origin of life,” he said.

But he added that those who had committed such “errors” suffered from “wounds to the soul” and “sought peace.”

On his plane, the pontiff said he would discuss immigration with Mr. Bush, especially the way it splits families and strains “the moral and social fabric of these countries.” The federal government should help poor countries develop so people did not have to leave, he said.

But the pope, considered an intellectual but lacking the charisma of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, will use his visit to deliver broad messages and, as he said in a video before his trip, “to reach out spiritually to all Catholics in the United States” — all 67 million.

Benedict will steer clear of presidential politics — he will not hold private meetings with any of the candidates — but he has warned Catholic politicians who must decide on such issues as abortion, euthanasia and marriage that the faith’s values are “not negotiable.”

The fanfare continues today when a crowd of 10,000 people — the largest at the White House since Mr. Bush took office, even bigger than last year’s gathering for Queen Elizabeth II — will welcome the pope. Both he and the president will deliver remarks before adjourning to the Oval Office for private discussions.

The welcoming ceremony will feature the U.S. and Holy See anthems, a 21-gun salute, and the U.S. Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. After the meeting, Benedict will travel in his popemobile down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Tonight, the White House is hosting a gala dinner in his honor, but Benedict won’t be there. The White House says he will instead be attending a prayer service with American bishops. Tomorrow, he will celebrate Mass at the Nationals’ new ballpark.

The pontiff also will meet in the District with Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Jews and representatives of other religions at Catholic University tomorrow. He plans to visit a New York synagogue Friday, a day before the start of Passover.

He also addresses the United Nations on Friday, and on Saturday — the third anniversary of his election to the papacy — he will celebrate Mass for priests, deacons and members of religious orders in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He ends his trip on Sunday after visiting the site of the World Trade Center towers destroyed in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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