- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 16, 2008

As Pope Benedict XVI met with President Bush today, he encouraged the American people to “pursue reasoned, responsible and respectful dialogue in the effort to build a more humane and free society.” In addition, he told America’s Roman Catholic leaders in an evening service that the clergy sex abuse scandal has sometimes been “very badly handled,” his harshest criticism yet regarding the crisis that has badly damaged the U.S. church.

Pope Benedict addressed the topic of 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. The pope spoke after Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who is the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The cardinal said the consequences of the clergy abuse scandal “and of its being sometimes very badly handled by bishops makes both the personal faith of some Catholics and the public life of the church herself more problematic.” Pope Benedict seemed to agree with that assessment. “Responding to this situation has not been easy and, as the president of your episcopal conference has indicated, it was sometimes very badly handled,” he said. Pope Benedict said that it was important to remember that the vast majority of priests served faithfully but that it also was the bishops’ “God-given responsibility” to reach out to those who had been “so seriously wronged.”

After a morning filled with gala White House pageantry and a private discussion with President Bush where they discussed protecting Christians in Iraq, Pope Benedict continued his landmark Washington visit, presiding over evening vespers and addressing U.S. bishops at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

The shrine, located in Northeast Washington, is the largest of the nation’s Roman Catholic churches in the U.S. and North America.

Pope Benedict was greeted by cheering throngs who gathered outside of Vatican Embassy, where he emerged at about 5 p.m. to wave and pose for photographs. He was greeted warmly by supporters, waving U.S. and Holy See flags and hoisting signs, who lined the motorcade route for a glimpse of the Catholic leader as he made his way to the church where he entered on a red carpet.

The pontiff will be honored tonight at a White House dinner for about 250 guests, including Republican presidential candidate John McCain, along with the five Supreme Court justices who are Catholics. Others attending the East Room event included famed baseball manager Tommy Lasorda, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Ken Hackett, the president of Catholic Relief Services, as well as 20 prominent members of the U.S. clergy. On the menu were Bavarian-inspired dishes, in honor of the pope’s German heritage, which included spatzle, white-truffle potato dumplings and squash carpaccio.

The pope, who celebrated his 81st birthday today and was treated to a spontaneous “Happy Birthday” song by crowds gathered at the White House’s South Lawn this morning, will not attend the formal dinner because of a scheduling conflict with his address to Catholic bishops.

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  • Making the first trip by a papal leader to the United States in nearly 30 years, the pope, entering the third year of his reign, charmed the thousands of supporters who honored him amid great fanfare during formal welcoming ceremonies that included a 21-gun salute and music by soprano Kathleen Battle. He later joined President Bush for a private 90-minute meeting in the Oval Office where the leaders discussed human rights efforts and conflicts in the Middle East.

    In remarks made before the crowd of more than 13,500 gathered this morning, the pope said that he believes the American people will find in their religious beliefs “a precious source of insight and an inspiration to find solutions to modern day problems.

    A democracy without values can lose its very soul, the pope said in English, with a strong German accent.

    President Bush welcomed the pope to “a nation that welcomes the role of faith in the public square,” telling the pontiff that Americans’ hearts are open to your message of hope.”

    Mr. Bush also said that Pope Benedicts message that “God is love” is needed “in a world where some invoke the name of God to justify acts of terror and murder and hate.”

    The president thanked Pope Benedict for coming on his birthday, and said religious faith and liberty is “one of our countrys greatest strengths.” Mr. Bush also welcomed the popes critiques of what many in the West consider the greatest external and internal threats to democratic society: Islamic terrorism and relativism.

    The president quoted from past papal speeches on those issues, noting that Pope Benedicts message of divine love is the surest way to save men from falling prey to the teaching of fanaticism and terrorism.

    “In a world where some no longer believe that we can distinguish between simple right and wrong, the West needs to reject the dictatorship of relativism, Mr. Bush said.

    Pope Benedict’s address was more expansive, touching on the role of faith and morality in America’s founding, and then moving on to the need for preserving freedom by cultivating virtue, self-discipline, sacrifice for the common good, and a sense of responsibility towards the less fortunate.”

    Freedom is not only a gift, but also a summons to personal responsibility, the pope said.

    Leaders are needed, who are guided by truth and bring the wisdom born of firm moral principle to decisions, he said.

    Once inside the White House, the president presented Pope Benedict with a birthday cake, and the two men then walked alone to the Oval Office.

    White House press secretary Dana Perino said the two men discussed the Iraq war, but that the conversation was mostly about protecting Christians from violence.

    Pope Benedict has been critical of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but Mrs. Perino said she was “reluctant” to give further details because the two leaders “had an understanding that it would be private.”

    In a joint statement released by the White House, the leaders “devoted considerable time,” to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

    Small crowds gathered in Lafayette Square cheered and waved as the Pope, traveling in the popemobile, left the White House and headed west towards 17th Street. There, larger crowds let out a loud roar as the pontiff turned right and headed north back towards the Vatican embassy where he spent the afternoon.

    The pope’s visit continues tomorrow when he will preside over a public mass at Nationals Park. Afterwards, he will speak on the importance of Catholic education at The Catholic University of America, followed by interfaith meetings at the university’s cultural center.

    He leaves Friday morning for three days in New York City, where he is expected to visit Ground Zero on Saturday and offer prayers for world peace. He will lead a public mass at Yankee Stadium Sunday before returning to Rome that evening.

    Associated Press writer Victor L. Simpson contributed to this article.

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