By JOHN THAVIS, CNS | Published April 17, 2008
Pope Benedict XVI said he hoped to help heal the wounds of priestly sex abuse during his visit to the United States and promised steps to ensure that such acts do not happen again.
The pope made his remarks to reporters aboard his chartered Alitalia jet April 15, about an hour after taking off from Rome for his April 15-20 visit to Washington and New York City.
The pope stood at the front of the coach class of the plane and answered four questions chosen in advance, touching on topics of immigration, church-state relations and the United Nations.
Asked what he would have to say about the clerical sex-abuse scandal in the U.S., the pope said the church should work for justice and help the victims as much as possible.
“Really, 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 said.
“If I read the histories of these victims, it’s difficult for me to understand how it was possible that priests betrayed in this way their mission to give healing, to give the love of God to these children,” he said.
“We are deeply ashamed and will do all possible that this cannot happen in the future,” he said.
The pope cited new norms approved by U.S. church leaders for dealing with sexual abuse, and he noted a recent visitation of all U.S. seminaries.
Seminaries today are being much more careful about making sure that “only really sound persons” are admitted to the priesthood, because the church recognizes that “it’s more important to have good priests than to have many priests,” he said.
He drew a distinction between homosexual priests and those who commit sexual abuse.
“I will not speak in this moment about homosexuality but about pedophilia, which is another thing. We will absolutely exclude pedophiles from the sacred ministry. This is absolutely incompatible,” he said.
The pope said the entire church should be involved in the process of healing, assistance and reconciliation.
“This is a big pastoral engagement, and I know also all the bishops and priests and all the Catholic people of the United States will do what is necessary to help, to assist and to heal and to see that in the future these things cannot happen,” he said.
“We hope that we can do and have done and will do in the future all that is possible to heal this wound,” he said.
The pope stood during the question-and-answer session, speaking in English and Italian into a microphone held by an aide. He was flanked by his secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, and his spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi.
The pope said he was traveling with joy to the United States, a country he has visited several times.
“I know this great country, and I know the great liveliness of the church, despite all the problems,” he said.
He thanked President George W. Bush in advance for meeting him upon his arrival in Washington and for dedicating such a large amount of time for their meeting the next day.
The pope said his trip had several objectives: to reflect in a pastoral way with the U.S. Catholic community, to reach out in fraternity to non-Catholics and to review the foundational values of human rights at the United Nations.
Responding to a question from a Mexican correspondent about immigration issues in the United States, the pope said the long-term solution is to make sure people have enough employment and social opportunities so there is no longer a need to emigrate.
He said he would speak to Bush about development assistance to Latin American countries.
“Above all, the United States needs to help so that these countries can develop. This is in the interest of everyone, not only in the interest of (developing) countries, but of the world and precisely of the United States,” he said.
The pope said short-term action also needs to be taken to help families separated by immigration, a problem he has discussed at length with Latin American bishops.
“This is really dangerous for the social, moral and human fabric of these countries,” he said.
The pope emphasized that immigration has also brought positive things, particularly the hospitality shown by U.S. church leaders and lay members.
“So with all the painful things, let’s not forget so much real humanity and so much positive action that exists,” he said.
Answering a question about his April 18 visit to the United Nations, the pope said he wanted to highlight the moral foundations of the 1948 U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
These rights represent values that are nonnegotiable and that are the basis of social institutions, he said. It is important today to remember that in 1948 international representatives reached a consensus on these fundamental values—a consensus that needs to be renewed, he said.
The pope, asked about the balance of church and state in U.S. society, said he found it fascinating that the United States has adopted a form of secular society that respects religious values.
He noted that the United States was formed largely by groups and individuals who fled state churches and who wanted a lay, secular state, but one that allowed the free practice of religion and accepted the place of moral principles in society.
Those who have experienced and studied America know that “these secular institutions live according to the de facto moral consensus that exists among its citizens,” he said.
He warned that attacks of a “new secularism” threaten to upset this traditional balance, but essentially, he said, the church-state model in the United States is positive and deserves Europe’s attention.