There were plenty of doubting Thomases who suspected that Pope Benedict XVI would steer clear of any meaningful discussion of the clergy sexual abuse scandal during his first visit to America. But the 81-year-old pontiff proved them wrong. His gradual but repeated references to the despicable actions of priests who sexually abused the church's most vulnerable members have resonated through the ranks of the American church, from parishioners to pastors to prelates. His candor about the problem and the compassion shown to victims must be viewed as a concerted effort to convince American Catholics that he won't tolerate such criminal behavior.
Unlike his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who was slow to acknowledge the scope of the problem and its human toll, Pope Benedict made clear his stand on this shameful betrayal and emphasized the pastoral care due victims. His decision to visit with victims from the Boston Archdiocese was akin to Daniel entering the lion's den. Boston was the epicenter of the sexual abuse scandal when it broke several years ago, where hundreds of victims were identified or came forward.
During his visit, Pope Benedict wasn't concerned only about the victims. He emphasized to American bishops their role in protecting youngsters, a responsibility that some in the past neglected.
Perhaps most intriguing for efforts going forward were the comments made last week by Cardinal William J. Levada, who oversees the Vatican office that rules on cases of sexual abuse by clergy. He indicated the Vatican might consider expanding the church's statute of limitations on reviewing abuse complaints against priests. Such a change would allow the church to more quickly and uniformly expel abusive priests from the priesthood, a welcome move because these priests have no business remaining in the priesthood in any capacity.
But Catholics also must feel confident that the Vatican will be as tough on church leaders - no matter their rank. There have been too many children who were victimized by abusive priests who were transferred from one diocese to another. The bishops who made those egregious decisions have yet to answer for their role in this unseemly scandal.