- The Washington Times - Monday, April 21, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI’s six-day visit to the United States ended last night with all the gala and pomp of a Yankee Stadium Mass to tens of thousands, but the six-day trip will have its greatest impact in the pope’s words and deeds on the sex-abuse scandal that has engulfed the church in the United States.

Observers of his first visit as head of the world’s 1 billion Catholics have unanimously praised his multiple apologies for the priestly sex-abuse crisis that shattered the confidence of many Catholic laity in their church. And on the third day of his visit, the pope stunned the world by meeting secretly with five victims of sexual abuse from Boston, the archdiocese at the epicenter of the crisis since 2002.

“Frankly, it shows that he gets it,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. “He realized he couldn’t just mention it once and move onto other things.”

The abuse crisis “had become a wound on the body of the church,” he continued. “It had been stitched up but not completely healed. I think he recognized it.”

The few short days also saw Benedict earn an almost adoring reaction from an American public not sure what to expect from a man who had been the Vatican’s chief doctrinal watchdog, overseeing the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the successor office to the Papal Inquisition.

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    “From the moment he arrived at Andrews Air Force Base, he had this warm, open smile,” Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl said last night. “He seemed to be embraced by everyone everywhere he went. He had some quality allowing him to touch people’s hearts.”

    The pope’s welcoming demeanor — a stark contrast to the widespread caricature of him as the “God’s Rottweiler” — won over non-Catholics as well.

    “Jewish leaders liked his candor, his warmth, his friendly manner and his willingness to work with the Jewish community on any issues that might arrive,” said Gunther Lawrence, the founder of the Interreligious Information Center in Port Washington, N.Y., who attended an interfaith meeting in Washington with the pope Thursday night.

    “People thought he’d be hard-nosed,” said the Rev. Giacomo Capoverdi, a priest from Rhode Island. “But he came in a gentle and pastoral manner and humbly presented himself.”

    But it was on the sexual-abuse scandal where Benedict cut the most distinctive figure, acting in stark contrast to those of John Paul II, who rarely mentioned the crisis in public — which involved the sexual abuse of 12,000 victims since 1950, mostly boys in their teens or pre-teens — and never met with victims.

    Whatever the audience, Benedict mentioned the sex-abuse scandal.

    While on the plane to the United States, the pope acknowledged he was “deeply ashamed” of the scandal. On Wednesday, his first full day on U.S. soil, he chided American bishops over the crisis, saying it was “badly handled.”

    He brought up the matter a third time during a homily at the Nationals Park Mass Thursday morning, saying, “No words of mine could describe the pain and harm inflicted by such abuse.” And late that afternoon came the historic meeting at the Vatican Embassy, arranged by Boston Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley. Just to make sure church leaders got his point, the pope apologized once more Saturday at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

    “Now the pope has placed this issue front and center, it must be resolved,” said the Rev. Tom Hoatson, a priest from West Orange, N.J., who in 2005 founded Road to Recovery Inc. for sexually abused Catholics.

    “The pope has told his bishops they handled it badly, and therefore, don’t handle it badly any more.”

    Benedict already had the most-detailed knowledge of the U.S. sex-abuse scandal of any non-American in the Vatican. In 2001, John Paul gave him oversight of all church investigations of sexual misconduct by priests, a subject not usually in the CDF’s purview.

    The ad hoc Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests has released statements saying “dozens” of new people have come to them this past week to report abuse — many of them energized by the pope’s willingness to tackle the topic.

    Olan Horne, one of the abuse victims who met Benedict, told reporters that the meeting had gone so well that it reached the point where he asked the pope “to forgive me for hating his church and hating him” over the crisis.

    Benedict also repeatedly spoke to one of the other leading crises facing the U.S. church — the declining number of vocations to the priesthood and religious orders over the past several decades. For example, attendees at yesterday’s Mass at Yankee Stadium provided two of their three interruptions for applause at Benedict’s plea that youths would “open your hearts to the Lord’s call” to the seminary or monastery.

    The pope missed almost no major topic of the day during his travels, but always tailored to his audience.

    While visiting President Bush at the White House, the pontiff urged the chief executive to use U.S. forces to protect Christians from violence in Iraq and to promote humane solutions for America”s estimated 12 million illegal immigrants. He won an enthusiastic reaction at the United Nations by calling for a universal understanding of human rights grounded in natural law.

    He hammered on moral relativism several times, warning everyone from Catholic youth to ecumenical leaders of its hazards and had many statements sharply critical of American culture, saying its strongly individualist streak tempts Catholics “to pick and choose” among church teachings.

    Yet his appeal and the enthusiasm of the response seemed to grow each day of his visit.

    Indeed, the pope came out of his somewhat shy public personality, as Americans continually serenaded him — he turned 81 on Wednesday — with choruses of “Happy Birthday” and 20,000 youth repeatedly chanted “Benedetto” during Saturday”s rally at St. Joseph Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y.

    New York Archdiocese officials said after the rally they had not expected the pope to spontaneously stride down two “wings” of the rally stage that extended into the crowd. He did so twice, grasping seminarians” hands, waving and beaming at the crowd.

    President Bush helped by personally welcoming the pope Tuesday at Andrews Air Force Base — an unprecedented act for Mr. Bush — and allowed 13,500 fans to pack the White House lawn Wednesday morning for a birthday reception. Among them was Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, an Orthodox Jew who was waving the yellow-and-white flag of the Vatican.

    The president was overheard privately thanking the pope, saying “Thank you, Your Holiness. It was awesome.”

    “He had a way of touching people’s hearts,” Archbishop Wuerl said. “He exuded this sense of calm and joy. He walked into the room, and there was this sense of peace.”

    The archbishop got to ride in the popemobile during the pope”s Washington stay and watch the pontiff”s visage.

    “Just to see it lit up with joy; there was this smile that never left his face,” the archbishop said. “He was waving. I was transfixed by what was clearly him exuding love. It was clear he loved the people he was seeing.”

    Shortly before his plane left around 9 p.m., the pope was bid farewell by Vice President Dick Cheney; his wife, Lynne; former President Bill Clinton; his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton; and some 3,250 guests gathered in a hangar at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

    “I assure you of my affection and friendship in the Lord,” Benedict said. “May God bless America!”

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