With U.S. visit, pope projects softer image

But questions remain about next steps in the sexual-abuse crisis and outreach to young Catholics.

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
At ground zero: Pope Benedict XVI took part Sunday in a candle-lighting ceremony at the World Trade Center site in New York.

By most accounts, Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the United States achieved its paramount purpose – to inspire hope among American Catholics and others looking for encouragement in troubling times.

With his face-to-face meeting with sexual-abuse victims, he stirred fresh expectation within a US church that has long been in limbo. He reminded Americans and those at the United Nations of the moral strengths – and responsibilities – of free and prosperous nations. His soft-spoken manner and nuanced messages gave a very different impression from his reputation as a hard-nosed conservative.

"Honestly, I don't believe he could have done a better job of remaking his image," says Paul Lakeland, director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut.

The jubilant welcome from the crowds, however, doesn't mean Roman Catholics are ready to change their views on church teachings. And along with sighs of relief, serious questions remain in the minds of the faithful. What happens now with the sexual-abuse crisis? Will words lead to actions? And what will he do to reach young Catholics, who are increasingly disconnected from the church?

Without doubt, the most momentous event of the six days was the pope's secret session in Washington with five victims of abuse from Boston. It was the only meeting in which he did most of the listening.

"I told him I was an altar boy ... and it wasn't just sexual abuse, it was spiritual abuse," said Bernie McDaid later on CNN. "Then I told him that he has a cancer growing in his ministry and needs to do something about it."

Faith Johnston, a young woman abused eight years ago, broke down in tears and couldn't tell her story, but her presence was eloquent evidence that the offenses were not just a product of the 1960s and '70s. Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston gave the pope a handmade book listing the names of 1,500 Boston-area victims.

The three survivors of abuse who later spoke in public said they felt comforted by the pope and he heard their messages. Other victims view the meeting as a definite step forward but say talk must be followed by much stronger actions.

"We do children an immense disservice if we set extraordinarily low expectations for such a powerful global figure," says David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. SNAP calls for greater accountability for the bishops who have moved abusive priests from parish to parish.

Many Catholics hope this step heralds significant change. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll showed that the share of Catholics upset by the way the church has handled this scandal has spiked 20 points, to about 75 percent, since 2004.

"My deepest prayer was that he would appreciate how deeply wounded every Catholic has been," says Bostonian Svea Fraser. "Now there's a glimmer of hope we can name the elephant in the room and do something about it."

Pope Benedict's positive approach during his visit had an impact on Catholic educators as well, with a speech to the heads of colleges, universities, and schools.

"He put the issues on a very different footing from that of the last 10 years," says Dr. Lakeland. "The pressure is on to do what Catholic institutions should do – promote both faith and reason – but without this cloud of prescriptions or sanctions over their heads."

From the welcome on the White House lawn to the stop at ground zero, Pope Benedict won over many with his sensitivities to American history and values.

"He recognized the freedom cherished by Americans but reminded us we have to use it not just for our selfish interests but for the common good," says Fr. Thomas Reese of the Woodstock Theological Center in Washington. "And he certainly did a good job of not getting entangled in the presidential election!"

In fact, the scholarly pope showed a penchant for emphasizing foundational moral principles rather than citing specific examples of his concerns. In his speech to the UN, he did not mention the Iraq war or other conflicts, but he highlighted the importance of diplomacy and championed human rights.

The interfaith gathering held in Washington with some 200 leaders of other religions was ceremonial but inadvertently highlighted ongoing challenges.

When it was learned the meeting would consist of a speech from the pope and no discussion, one of the Muslim groups declined the invitation and sent a letter calling for genuine dialogue. Jewish groups had already raised concerns about a Good Friday prayer. They won a brief private meeting after the speech.

"He spoke to the controversy but did not completely clarify it," says Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, interfaith director for the American Jewish Committee. Yet the overall gathering "was meaningful," Mr. Greenebaum says. "I sensed he cared deeply about ... being with the groups."

The grandfatherly image visible as the pope traveled in his popemobile and opened his arms to huge crowds at the stadiums could bring renewal to the church, some suggest. "He projects gentleness and humility, very different from his reputation as 'Cardinal No' because of his affirmation of all the 'nos' in the church – no birth control, no abortion," no ordained women, says Michele Dillon, who teaches sociology at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

Still, such a trip will not change people's views on church teachings or on how the church needs to change. "The criticisms will remain," she adds, "but for many there will be a new respect."

Others, though, say some issues will require much deeper and more serious engagement by the pope. Donna Freitas, author of "Sex and the Soul," a study of religion and sexuality on college campuses, has taught young Catholics and interviewed many about their faith lives.

Apart from a small group of orthodox youths, "your average young Catholic doesn't feel the teachings have relevance to their lives," she says. "There's not just apathy but anger and frustration."

Aside from the sexual-abuse crisis, she says, the most important issue is how to reach young Catholics in a lasting way. "They need to feel attended to, rather than just being indoctrinated," she says. "They are the church's future."

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