WASHINGTON -- Pope Benedict XVI began the first full day of his U.S. visit being serenaded by thousands of spectators at the White House and ended it with a sweeping speech to the nation's bishops in which he admitted that the sex abuse scandal was "very badly handled."
President Bush invited the pope for an elaborate ceremony on the South Lawn, and then the two leaders privately discussed issues such as immigration and the Middle East. Thousands filled the streets of downtown Washington as Pope Benedict shuttled between events in the popemobile.
Much attention was focused on the pope's highly anticipated speech to 350 U.S. bishops last evening. Echoing introductory remarks by Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Pope Benedict said the sex scandal was "at times very badly handled."
"It is your God-given responsibility as pastors to bind up the wounds caused by every breach of trust, to foster healing, to promote reconciliations and to reach out with loving concern to those so seriously wronged," he told the bishops at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Papal observers said the pope, who said Tuesday that he was "deeply ashamed" by the abuse scandal, was trying to tackle head-on the most important issue facing the American church.
"This is the first time there has been a public acknowledgment by a pope that sometimes the bishops handled the sex abuse scandal very poorly. ... This is a mea culpa by the church," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and author of books on the Vatican.
Pope Benedict did not directly address the conduct of some bishops accused of sheltering pedophile priests from scrutiny, nor did he propose concrete steps for reform. The speech was "a middle way" that probably will not satisfy all lay Catholics and victims of abuse, said Stephen Pope, a professor of moral theology at Boston College.
"The issue that hasn't been dealt with here is that of accountability," Pope Benedict told the bishops.
His remarks came in the middle of a long address on topics such as declining marriage rates and the faltering numbers of priests.
Earlier in the day, Pope Benedict steered largely clear of controversy, and Washington turned out in force to welcome him to the United States.
Teresa Glover, 44, of Fairfax, Va., took the day off work to stand on Pennsylvania Avenue and watch the papal procession. She had seen Pope John Paul II once as a teenager, but "honestly, I didn't appreciate it," she said, clutching a prayer bracelet she hoped the pope would bless. "That's why I definitely wanted to be here for this."
On the South Lawn, 13,500 spectators attended an elaborate ceremony for the pontiff, which included a rendition of the Lord's Prayer by soprano Kathleen Battle and a 21-gun salute. Later, the crowd spontaneously sang "Happy Birthday" to the pope, who turned 81 yesterday.
In a short address, Pope Benedict called on Americans to use their great wealth to help the poor and create "a more humane and free society."
"Freedom is not only a gift, but also a summons to personal responsibility," he said.
Bush praised the moral leadership of Pope Benedict, who has emphasized the threat relativism poses to the church in the modern world.
"In a world where some no longer believe that we can distinguish between simple right and wrong, we need your message to reject this 'dictatorship of relativism,' and embrace a culture of justice and truth," Bush said.
Rep. Peter T. King, a New York Republican who had led the congressional delegation to watch Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger ascend to the papacy in 2005, said yesterday's ceremony was "very moving, very significant. It was a feeling of being present at a very historic moment."
The president and the pontiff met in the Oval Office and discussed a host of issues, including immigration and conflicts in the Middle East. Afterward, the White House and the Vatican released a joint statement calling for a coordinated immigration policy, specifically addressing the pope's long-held concern for the "humane treatment and well-being" of immigrant families.
The pope and Bush also "expressed hope for an end to violence and for a prompt and comprehensive solution to the crises" in the Middle East, the statement said, omitting any reference to the pope's opposition to the Iraq war.
Michael Amon writes for Newsday.