The Pope's Sex Abuse Apology

So—did it count as an apology? Speaking to a gathering of 350 U.S. bishops and nine cardinals, Benedict once again addressed the sex abuse scandal, saying it was a cause of "deep shame" for the church and an "evil" that has "caused enormous pain." Speaking to the bishops he at times sounded as if he was admonishing them, stressing to each "your God-given responsibility as pastors to bind up the wounds caused by every breach of trust, to foster healing, to promote reconciliation and to reach out with loving concern to those seriously wronged." The pope admitted that the church's response has had its problems and, "as the president of your Episcopal Conference has indicated, it was 'sometimes very badly handled'." (That phrase came from earlier remarks by Cardinal Francis George when he introduced the pope to the bishops gathered in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.) In the advance text of the pope's speech, given to the 40-odd reporters covering the event, those four words were written in quotation marks. They weren't even, technically, his.

Just how far the Roman Catholic Church must go to address the recent sex abuse scandals has—so far—overshadowed Pope Benedict XVI's first papal visit to the United States. "A Catholic priest was recently asked on a TV show if the pope should apologize, and he said that the pope just talking about the issue should be considered an apology," says 27-year-old Sarah Gray, who won a $1.1 million settlement in a case against the Bishop of Orange Diocese and her alma mater, Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, California. "That just isn't logical. We need a real apology." Her abuser was a choir leader, not a bishop or a priest, but still an authority at her Catholic high school who sexually molested her in 1997. Gray, who remains a practicing Catholic, says, "The pope needs to re-inspire American Catholics who have been in despair over the abuse and the ongoing cover-up. Being willing to talk about it is good, but it's not as important as offering a plan of action." In his speech Benedict told the bishops that "rightly, you attach priority to showing compassion and care to the victims" but stopped short of announcing a new system or changes in canon law that might lead to stricter controls, as some had hoped he would.

Gray says she has been able to separate her faith from the actions of the church hierarchy, something that abuse survivor Tony Almeida hasn't been able to do. Almeida was one of 500 plaintiffs in a successful $650 million lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 2007. He says that a priest in his L.A. parish molested and raped him over a period of three years starting when he was an 11-year-old altar boy. Since then Almeida has been in two failed marriages and says he is unable to trust others. "Maybe the pope came here because the euro is strong and he needs to go shopping. I don't care what he says. I don't want an apology and I don't want anything to do with the Catholic Church." Almeida, a firefighter who helped out at Ground Zero, says he knows that it is good to forgive, but he simply can't. "The pope is coming to New York and D.C., but what about Boston or Los Angeles? Why won't he speak to victims?"

Clearly the pope wanted to handle the issue head-on while flying here, telling reporters on Shepherd One that he was "deeply ashamed" by the child sex scandals that have rocked the church and that the church would work to exclude pedophiles from the priesthood. "It is more important to have good priests than to have many priests," he said. But it is unlikely he'll be talking to victims, something Vatican analysts had suggested was a possibility in the early planning stages of the U.S. trip.

In his speech the pope stressed the need to strengthen marriage, fight secularism and understand the meaning of salvation, all of which would help the problem of "attrition" from the Catholic Church. Sitting in the pews of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, volunteer tour guide Lena Corpuz watched Benedict explore the shrine before descending to meet with the bishops. She couldn't have been more thrilled with the experience. "Benedict is a shepherd of God on earth who will lead and guide the flock to God," she said. "And we love him." She feels that Benedict has more than addressed the sex abuse scandals, which she calls a "terrible time in the history of the church" but something that is just that: history. "To me this issue has been addressed already and is in the past. It's enough."

Peter Isely, who was molested by a priest in Wisconsin at age 13, stood outside the hotel where the press vans dropped off reporters after the speech to hand out a flier with reaction from victims, all disappointed. Isely says he did sense an apology in the pope's words, but it wasn't for people like him. "He seemed to be apologizing to the bishops and the hurt that this has caused them. He started off on the plane talking in generalities, and we were hoping when he got here he'd get down to specifics. But he's still way up there in the air."