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The Pope's Sex Abuse Challenge

Jeff Israely (Rome) and David Van Biema (New York), Time. April 11, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI's trip this week to the United States will include  high-profile visits to the White House, United Nations and Ground Zero.  But no matter what political issues or media angles may be buzzing  before take-off, the Vatican tends to stress the pastoral aspect of any  papal journey. 

The six-day itinerary is above all stacked with church  services, baseball stadium masses and Catholic institutional encounters  to allow the pontiff to tend to his flock, and to the priests and  bishops who do the ministering when he's back in Rome. The American visit, however, poses an unprecedented pastoral challenge  for the 80-year-old pontiff.

Benedict's is the first papal trip to the  United States since the priest sex abuse crisis erupted in 2001. It is a  controversy that has left much of the American laity bitterly  disillusioned with their Church's leadership. For many of the 67 million  American Catholics, how the Pope confronts the lingering fallout from  the pedophilia scandal may largely determine the success of this visit. Benedict's arrival in the U.S. is being seen as a make-or-break moment  for Rome to regain the trust of its American flock, the third largest  national contingent within a worldwide Catholic Church of 1.1 billion  faithful. In recent days, the Vatican has confirmed that on at least one  occasion Benedict will specifically address the issue. 

The Vatican's No. 2 official, Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone, told FOX News that the Pope will confront the "open wound" of sex abuse during the April 19 morning mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral for New York-area clergy. It is unclear whether his words will amount to a Mea Culpa similar to those  pronounced by John Paul II back in 2000 for the sins of the Church over  past centuries, including persecution of Jews and heretics. Brazilian  Cardinal Claudio Hummes, who heads the Vatican office for the clergy,  sent a letter to bishops around the world in January, urging special  prayer sessions for the victims of sexual abuse by priests.

Some Catholic lay groups say, however, that words and prayers are not  enough, and have called on the Pope to personally meet with victims of  priest abuse. Though it is not part of the official program of events,  the Vatican has not ruled out such an encounter, and may be holding on  to the option as a possible surprise stroke of spontaneity where the  Holy Father's human contact might help assuage some of the lingering  pain.

It will be important to follow closely both the words and any  potential gestures to see if the reserved pontiff manages to address the  suffering of victims, and Catholics in general, with both sincerity and  substance. The American flock requires much mending. Kevin O'Toole, a lawyer and  devoted churchgoer from Manchester, Vermont, says

"there's still a disconnect" in the way top Church officials see the issue. "They still don't get it," he said. "They are trying to do the right thing, but it's still a measured response. And I think the time for being measured is gone." 

Like others, O'Toole says that senior Church officials, including  bishops who transferred known abusive priests to other dioceses, have  not taken responsibility for the crimes committed against children. Some of those most directly involved with the issue remain deeply  skeptical of a Vatican leadership they say has largely washed its hands  of the pedophilia scandal, calling it an "American problem" and blaming  the media for blowing it out of proportion. David Clohessy, head of the  SNAP sex abuse victims group, said the Vatican continues to lack real  measures for combating sex abuse within its ranks. 

"[Benedict] will totally avoid reference to the ongoing complicity and duplicity and recklessness of top church officials," he said "That's the scandal." 

Clohessy also called on the Pope to use the U.S. visit to announce the  extension of new Church policies for combating the problem worldwide,  noting that even the measures taken by the U.S. Church, which he  considers insufficient, are better than nothing. 

"For 94% of Catholic kids on the planet," he said, "there's not even a pretext of a minimal set of standards for clergy sex abuse cases."

Of course, for Benedict to win over American Catholics, responding to  the crisis is just a start. Two open-air masses, on April 17 at the  Washington Nationals' baseball stadium and on April 20 at New York's  Yankee Stadium will show the shy Pope is improving on the public stage. 

With a reputation as a doctrinal hardliner, Americans may be pleasantly  surprised that Benedict tends not to wag his finger at the faithful on  these pastoral missions. But with the recent history in the U.S. church,  he can focus on what's best in the American church only if he is sure  not to avoid what is worst.

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