He strikes the right tone in acknowledging clergy sex scandal.
Like his charismatic predecessor, Pope Benedict has played to rock-concert-sized crowds on his first visit to the United States as head of the Roman Catholic Church.
John Paul II's youth and energy made him an instant celebrity, a role he embraced and wielded in global politics. Benedict, the 81-year-old German pontiff with a reputation as a doctrinal hardliner, has steered a quieter course. His 2005 election prompted concern and debate in his independent-minded American church. Yet his visit, which ends today after a mass at Yankee Stadium, offers reassurances. He has consistently struck the right notes in his words and deeds here, demonstrating an appreciation and understanding of his Western flock.
The pontiff's visit came at a challenging time for the American church. Wounds from the clergy sex scandals are still fresh, in Minnesota and across the nation, and are likely to scar the laity's trust for generations. In many areas, priest shortages and shifting resources are forcing the painful closure of beloved parishes. Weekly Sunday worship attendance is in decline; in the Midwest, it hovers around 25 to 30 percent. Pews would be emptier still if not for the immigrants attending church in ever-greater numbers.
During his visit, Benedict has shown a sure hand at the wheel. In particular, his statements and actions in regard to the clergy sex scandals have been welcome and appropriate. The pope first brought up the issue en route to the United States with a tougher crowd than he's used to: journalists. He then addressed the topic with American bishops and expressed sorrow for victims in a mass for 50,000 at Washington Nationals stadium.
It was his surprise, emotional meeting with about five sex-abuse victims, however, that truly may have advanced the healing process the most. Several emerged in tears after speaking and praying with Benedict individually. It seemed, from a distance, a signal that a church so often accused of turning its back on these victims was fully ready to open its arms and minister to them.
Words and brief meetings will not cure what some have called a cancer in the church. Catholic leaders have taken important steps to end abuse, but there is much more work to do. In particular, the church must jettison its centuries-old approach to dealing with this issue behind closed doors. Secrecy allowed molestations to be denied and unchecked far too long; transparency is critical to build trust anew. That the pope chose to speak openly on the issue suggests he feels the same.
How many of the world's spiritual leaders have addressed a painful issue so publicly? For that matter, in the age of Enron, WorldCom and the Bear Stearns mortgage meltdown, how many CEOs have taken similar steps to admit error and clear the air? Benedict's candor sets an example and should embolden the clergy to work more openly to root out this problem.
When he returns to the Vatican today, the former Joseph Ratzinger will leave behind those enthralled by his visit and others struggling to rectify personal beliefs with hardline theology. Still, Benedict's visit was intriguing, affording American Catholics an up-close glimpse of their multidimensional, sometimes surprising spiritual leader.