WASHINGTON – 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 “such breach of trust” are bearing fruit, he said.
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.
After an evening prayer service, Chicago Cardinal Francis E. George, president of the U.S. 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 a day-to-day world, the state of the family within society, “a certain quiet attrition” of Catholics leaving the faith and the need for vocations.
He talked about the role of the bishops in addressing issues of the day, especially during an election year when church leaders cannot assume, he said, 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 U.S. 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 U.S. church 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 that abuse cases have been “sometimes very badly handled,” he said the bishops’ measures to address the scandal at all levels “are bearing great fruit.”
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 people.
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.
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 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 soul.”
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 said more than prayer is needed, he said. He encouraged the bishops to create opportunities for young people who come forward to explore a vocation also talk to their peers about the possibility, and to encourage all their priests to come together to dialogue and have an opportunity for fraternal encounters.
He urged all priest 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 independent nation.”
Bishop Carroll and his fellow bishops, the pope said, laid the foundation for “the rich variety of ecclesial life in present-day America.”
He said people in the U.S. “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 Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was evidence of that.