By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Aboard the Papal Plane
Wielding his strongest language to date on the sexual abuse crisis, Pope Benedict XVI today said that he is “deeply ashamed” by the scandals, stressed that pedophiles must be “absolutely excluded” from the priesthood, and vowed that the church will strive to bring “justice and healing” to victims.
In brief remarks to the press aboard the papal plane, Benedict also tackled immigration, the role of religion in the United States and Europe, and what he sees as the need for a moral consensus among nations about fundamental human rights.
The pope spoke for roughly 18 minutes, in response to four questions submitted by reporters in advance to the Vatican. Those questions were presented to the pope by four journalists accompanying him to the United States.
Undoubtedly, the pope’s hardest-hitting comments came on the recent sexual abuse scandals that have left five American dioceses bankrupt, generated an estimated $2 billion in payouts, and dealt a serious blow to the moral authority of the church in the United States.
“It is a great suffering for the church in the United States, for the church in general, and for me personally that this could happen,” the pope said. “We are deeply ashamed, and we will do all that is possible that this cannot happen in the future.”
Benedict confessed that he found the behavior of abuser-priests difficult to comprehend.
“When I read the histories of these victims, it’s difficult for me to understand how it’s possible that these priests betrayed their mission to bring healing, and the love of God, to these children,” Benedict said, speaking in English.
Benedict pledged that the Catholic church will practice a careful selection of future priests, saying pointedly that “it’s more important to have good priests than to have many priests.”
The pope also said that the church should “help victims in every possible way.”
In response to another question, Benedict addressed the immigration issue – a major concern for Catholic leaders in the United States not merely as a matter of social justice, but also because an increasing share of the American Catholic church is composed of Hispanic immigrants.
Benedict said he’s discussed the welfare of immigrants with bishops from Central and South America, and has been especially distressed to hear about the separation of families when immigrants run afoul of the legal authorities.
The pope said he intends to bring up immigration in his April 16 session with President George W. Bush, arguing that it’s essential to tackle the issue on two levels.
In the long run, the pope said, economic development in impoverished nations must be promoted, including by the United States, so that people no longer immigrate out of economic desperation.
In the meantime, Benedict said, “we have to do whatever’s possible against economic insecurity, against all the forms of violence, so that they can have a worthy life.”
On a third point, Benedict voiced admiration for the form of church/state separation developed in the United States, suggesting that unlike in Europe, the principle of a secular state in America was intended to help religious groups by keeping them free.
“[The state] was secular precisely out of love of religion, for the authenticity of religion, which could be lived only in freedom,” the pope said.
Finally, Benedict said that during his April 18 address to the United Nations, he will call for defense of universal moral values which are “fundamental and written in the being of the human person.”
Later today, Benedict will be welcomed to the United States by Bush and the First Lady, Laura Bush. Also on hand will be Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tuscon, the vice-president, along with Monsignor David Malloy, secretary-general of the conference. Alongside the officers of the national conference will be the leadership of the local church, including Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., and his auxiliaries.
After a brief ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base, the pope will proceed directly to the Apostolic Nunciatura, the residence of the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States, near the Naval Observatory on Washington’s Massachusetts Avenue.