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.