WASHINGTON -- Pope Benedict XVI, embarking on his first visit to the United States as pontiff, said yesterday that he was "deeply ashamed" of the sexual abuse scandal that has shaken the Roman Catholic Church in this country and pledged greater efforts by the church to bar pedophiles from the priesthood.
Speaking to reporters aboard his plane from Rome, the pope made his most extensive comments about the abuse crisis to date, saying that the scandal that erupted in the United States in 2002 had caused "great suffering" for the church and for "me personally."
Hours later, the pope was welcomed upon his arrival at Andrews Air Force Base by President Bush in what the White House said was an unprecedented show of deference by the president for a foreign leader.
Pope Benedict, waving and smiling broadly, was met at the foot of the Alitalia airliner's stairs by the president, first lady Laura Bush and their daughter Jenna.
There were no public statements made or planned; the pope and the president are scheduled to hold private discussions at the White House today, after an official welcoming ceremony that could draw as many as 9,000 guests to the South Lawn.
Pope Benedict's six-day visit to Washington and New York is the first by a pope to this country since revelations of clergy sexual abuse were first made in Boston and later spread to dioceses across the country. The scandal, in which thousands of victims alleged that they had been molested or raped by priests, has cost the church more than $2 billion in legal settlements to date, bankrupted five dioceses, and shattered families and parishes across the country. Many of the victims were children at the time of the abuse.
"We are deeply ashamed," the pope said in his comments to reporters on the plane. "We will do what is possible so this cannot happen again in the future."
Speaking in English and other languages as he answered four questions chosen from those submitted by reporters before the flight, Pope Benedict said that it was difficult for him to understand priests who had betrayed their sacred trust by molesting children. He said the church was working to identify and exclude any seminary candidates who might harbor such tendencies.
"It is more important to have good priests than many priests," he said. "We will do everything possible to heal this wound."
A spokesman for one victims group said he appreciated the pope's words but hoped for more. "Talk is cheap; action is better," David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said in an interview. "He's been pope for three years and a top Vatican official for three decades. Expressions of remorse and promises of reform ... ring pretty hollow at this point."
No meeting with victims is scheduled at this point, although Vatican officials have hinted that one might occur, perhaps informally and in private.
Pope Benedict, who turns 81 today and will mark the third anniversary of his pontificate this week, also signaled yesterday that he plans to raise the issue of immigration during his visit. He told reporters that he was especially concerned about what he called the grave problem of families separated by immigration policies and about border violence.
Another subject that might arise during his White House session is the Iraq war, which the pope has strongly opposed. But the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, Mary Ann Glendon, said she did not expect the pope to confront the president directly on the war.
More likely, she said, they would discuss their mutual interest in "strengthening the global moral consensus against terrorism, especially confronting the problem of religion being used for terrorist violence."
Pope Benedict's practice "is usually to find and encourage what he considers to be positive developments," said Glendon, who was among the dignitaries who greeted him at Andrews.
Tracy Wilkinson and Rebecca Trounson write for the Los Angeles Times.