WASHINGTON (CNS) – One of the "countersigns to the Gospel of life" in the United States is the sexual abuse of minors,
a situation "that causes deep shame," Pope Benedict XVI told about 300
US bishops gathered April 16 in the crypt church at the Basilica of
the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.
He called it an "evil" and said the US bishops have "rightly moved"
to address it. The programs they have put in place to discipline
priests and other church personnel who are abusers, to create safe
environments protecting young people, to foster healing and to "bind up
the wounds" caused by "every breach of trust" are bearing fruit, he
But the pope also said the problem of sex abuse
must be placed in a wider context when pornography, violence and "the
crude manipulation of sexuality" are so prevalent in society today.
The Pope arrived at the shrine in his popemobile, smiling and
waving to enthusiastic crowds that lined the adjacent streets and the
front of the basilica. He looked relaxed and in good form on the second
day of his April 15-20 visit, which will also take him to New York.
Inside the shrine, in the upper church, the pope was greeted by
staff of the shrine, the Washington Archdiocese and the bishops’
conference and their families, who sang "Happy Birthday" to him. He
prayed silently at the Blessed Sacrament Chapel and then at the Oratory
of Our Lady of Altotting, the patroness of Bavaria, in his German
Next came the vespers service with the U.S. bishops and the
pope’s address to them in the crypt church. Bishops wearing their black
cassocks and zucchettos filled the pews. They stood and applauded the
pontiff as he entered the church, where arches and columns recall the
catacombs in Rome where the first Christians worshipped.
After the evening prayer service, Chicago Cardinal FrancisGeorge, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a
talk that the bishops greeted the pope not as a foreign visitor but as
"a father and a friend in Christ."
Cardinal George briefly traced the history of the church in the United States, including some times of trouble.
"In our own day, the consequences of the dreadful sin of sexual abuse of minors
by some priests and of its sometimes being very badly handled by
bishops make both the personal faith of some Catholics and the public
life of the church herself more problematic," the cardinal said.
In his talk, the pope said priests themselves "have experienced shame" over abuse
carried out by fellow clergy and others and they need the bishops’
"guidance and closeness during this difficult time." He also said
people must remember the "overwhelming majority" of priests and
religious in the U.S. do "outstanding work."
The pope also addressed the effect of secularism and
materialism on how Catholics and others live out their beliefs in the
day-to-day world, the state of the family within society, "a certain
quiet attrition" of Catholics leaving the faith and the need for
His remarks on secularism, the issue of some Catholics leaving
the faith and vocations were in response to prepared questions from the
He talked about the role of the bishops in addressing the
issues of the day, especially during an election year when church
leaders cannot assume that "all Catholic citizens think in harmony with
the church’s teaching on key ethical issues."
"It falls to you to ensure that the moral formation provided at
every level of ecclesial life reflects the authentic teaching of the
Gospel of life," Pope Benedict said, noting that currently in the US
and elsewhere there is "proposed legislation that gives cause for
concern from the point of morality."
He did not mention particular issues, but said the Catholic
community under the bishops’ guidance "needs to offer a clear and
united witness on such matters," and the minds and hearts of the wider
community must be opened "to moral truth." Lay Catholics "can act as a
‘leaven’ in society" in this regard, he said.
Early in his speech he noted that the Church in the US is "blessed
with a Catholic laity of considerable diversity, who place their
wide-ranging gifts at the service of the church."
Regarding the sex abuse
scandal, he said, "Many of you have spoken to me of the enormous pain
that your communities have suffered when clerics have betrayed their
priestly obligations and duties by such gravely immoral behavior."
He said the bishops have rightly moved to show compassion and
care for the victims, to foster healing and promote reconciliation in
the aftermath of "every breach of trust."
Saying that the bishops have acknowledged thatabuse cases have been "sometimes very badly handled," he said the bishops’
measures to address the scandal at all levels "are bearing great
However, he said, if such policies are to achieve "their full
purpose," they must be placed "in a wider context" of sexual mores and
children must grow up "with a healthy understanding of sexuality and
its proper place in human relationships."
He said the values "underpinning society" need to be urgently
reassessed to provide a sound moral foundation for children and young
Children "have a right to be educated in authentic moral values rooted in the dignity of the human person," the Pope said.
"By acknowledging and confronting the problem when it occurs in
an ecclesial setting, you can give a lead to others, since this scourge
is found not only within your diocese, but in every sector of society.
It calls for a determined collective response," he said.
Children must "be spared the degrading manifestations and the crude manipulation of sexuality so prevalent today," he said.
Offering a sound moral foundation to children is the
responsibility not only of parents but of religious leaders, teachers
and catechists, and "the media and entertainment industries."
Regarding other issues, Pope Benedict praised Americans for
having "a genuinely religious spirit," but said secularism and
materialism can subtly influence the way people live out their faith.
He questioned why members of the faithful who worship in church on
Sunday act contrary to their beliefs and church teaching during the
rest of the week.
A sense of individualism can affect how people approach their
faith, leading them to pick and choose what they believe, he said.
"We’ve seen this emerge in an acute way in the scandal given by
Catholics who promote an alleged right to abortion," he said.
He pointed to people ignoring or exploiting the poor, or
promoting business practices, sexual behavior or positions on
right-to-life issues that are contrary to Catholic moral teaching.
He also talked about the state of the family, saying that a
healthy family life contributes to "peace in and within nations." In
the family home, he said, people learn about justice and love, the role
of authority and concern for one another.
But increasing rates of divorce and infidelity, delayed
marriage, more cohabitation and a growing disregard for the sacramental
bond of marriage are hurting the institution of marriage and eroding
family as a basic building block of society, he said.
He also said the family is the primary place for evangelization and passing on the Catholic faith.
He said the church needs to discover "new and engaging ways of
proclaiming" the message. He also said that too often today religion is
becoming too much of a private matter, and as such "loses its very
Regarding vocations, he said, "Let us be quite frank: The
ability to cultivate vocations to the priesthood and the religious life
is a sure sign of the health of a local church."
He urged the faithful to pray for vocations, but added that
prayer is important not just for vocations. He encouraged the bishops
to create opportunities for young people who come forward to explore a
vocation also to talk to their peers about the possibility, and to
encourage all their priests to come together for dialogue and fraternal
He urged all priests to overcome any divisions they have among
them, to move beyond disagreements and listen to one another and "the
Spirit, who is guiding the church into a future of hope."
As he opened his speech, the pope reviewed the beginnings of
the church in the U.S. calling the nation’s first bishop, Bishop John
Carroll, "a worthy leader of the Catholic community in your newly
Bishop Carroll and his fellow bishops, the pope said, laid the
foundation for "the rich variety of ecclesial life in present-day
He said people in the US "are remarkable for their religious
fervor and take pride in belonging to a worshipping community." He
noted that Americans are "known for their generosity," and said the
outpouring of help for victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist
attacks, the tsunami in Indonesia in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005
was evidence of that.