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By Daniel Burke and Adelle M. Banks
Religion News Service

Washington – Pope Benedict XVI urged his American flock on Thursday (April 17) to foster unity within the Roman Catholic Church, and called on listeners to reach out to the victims of the clergy sexual abuse scandal.
“No words of mine could describe the pain and harm inflicted by such abuse,” the pontiff told 46,000 Catholics and others gathered at a sun-splashed outdoor Mass in Washington’s new Nationals Park baseball stadium.
“Today I encourage each of you to do what you can to foster healing and reconciliation, and to assist those who have been hurt,” Benedict said.
He expressed shame and sorrow for the sexual abuse crisis, which claimed some 14,000 victims and has cost the U.S. church more than $2 billion. The scandal is quickly emerging as an unexpected theme of this pope’s first trip to America.
Catholics who heard his words said they were glad he addressed the issue directly. “I think it is time for healing,” said Matt King, 36, a computer consultant from Chesapeake Beach, Md.
“It was good to acknowledge it and not just sweep it under the rug.”
Vernetta Wilson, 58, an account manager from Baltimore, agreed.
“I’m glad that he addressed it, especially here in the United States,” she said. “I don’t think we can forget about it, that it happened, and it can happen again if we don’t address it.”
On the Tuesday flight from Rome, the pope said the scandal was a source of shame “to me personally” and the worldwide church. On Wednesday, Benedict told the nation’s bishops that the scandal had “sometimes been badly handled” and urged them to “bind up the wounds…with loving concern to those so seriously wronged.”
Benedict also called on U.S. bishops–and all American Catholics–to care for their clergy, whose ranks have been demoralized by the scandal.
“I ask you to love your priests, and to affirm them in the excellent work they do,” the pope said.
Lay reform groups welcomed the pope’s attention to the abuse scandal, but appeared unconvinced that much had changed. “We need to begin to address the underlying issues that caused the sexual abuse scandal in the first place,” said Dan Bartley, president of Boston-based Voice of the Faithful.
“Those (issues) being: a culture of clerical secrecy, and a lack of meaningful lay involvement in decision-making.”
Added Barbara Dorris of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests: “We’ve still seen no action. Not one child is safer today because of what the pope said.”
As in earlier speeches at the White House and to the bishops, Benedict also addressed wider themes in his homily, including the challenges of religious fidelity in an increasingly secular culture.
“Who can deny that the present moment is a crossroads, not only for the Church in America but also for society as a whole?” Benedict said.
Even as the “human family” draws closer and becomes increasingly interdependent, society is faltering at its foundations as “anger and polarization” take hold, the pope said.
Meeting those challenges “will depend in large part upon your own fidelity in handing on the treasure of our Catholic faith,” he said.
Benedict was cheered as he arrived at the stadium in the popemobile and was driven around the perimeter of the playing field.
Worshippers lined up for hours for a chance to see the pope before he heads to New York on Friday for a three-day visit. Once inside, they marveled at the gathering crowds and the message they sensed in their own presence.
“Oh my gosh, the church is alive,” said Phil Onochie, 29, a Nigerian-born youth director at a Catholic church in Alexandria, Va. “It’s not dead. It’s not old. It’s not antique.”
The Mass reflected the diversity of the pope’s U.S. flock, with prayers in Tagalog and Igbo and songs in Spanish and German. Connie Capone, 77, a real estate agent from Manassas, Va., said she hoped people would leave the stadium-turned-sanctuary with a renewed commitment to their faith.
“I really hope that it’s a turnaround for people really trying to do what’s right in the world,” she said. “Just by being here, I feel so uplifted.”
Later, the pope was scheduled to address Catholic educators on preserving the Catholic identity of schools and colleges, and then meet with interfaith leaders.
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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