ANDREWS AIR FORCE BASE, Md. — Pope Benedict XVI stepped onto U.S. soil for the first time as pontiff Tuesday, arriving to a presidential handshake and wild cheering only hours after saying he is "deeply ashamed" of the clergy sex abuse scandal that has devastated the American church.
Benedict gave hundreds of spectators a two-handed wave as he stepped off a special Alitalia airliner that brought him from Rome. Students from a local Catholic school screamed ecstatically when they saw the pope, who shook hands warmly with President Bush, first lady Laura Bush and their daughter Jenna on the tarmac.
Benedict tackled the most painful issue facing the U.S. Catholic Church — clergy sex abuse — on his flight to America. The U.S. church has paid out $2-billion in abuse costs since 1950, most of that in just the last six years.
The pope spoke in English as he answered questions submitted in advance by reporters.
"It is a great suffering for the church in the United States and for the church in general and for me personally that this could happen," Benedict said. "I am deeply ashamed, and we will do what is possible so this cannot happen again in the future."
Benedict described his pilgrimage as a journey to meet a "great people and a great church."
President Bush made the unusual gesture of greeting Benedict at Andrews Air Force Base — the first time he has welcomed a foreign leader there. They meet again today, when a crowd of 9,000 is expected at the White House to greet Benedict on his 81st birthday.
While the pope and Bush differ on the Iraq war, capital punishment and the U.S. embargo against Cuba, they do find common ground in opposing abortion, gay marriage and embryonic stem cell research.
After making little headway in his efforts to rekindle the faith in his native Europe, the German-born Benedict is visiting a country where many of the 65-million Catholics are eager to hear what he says and get to know him. A poll released Sunday by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University found eight in 10 Catholics are somewhat or very satisfied with his leadership.
NEW YORK — Unease with Pope Benedict XVI's approach to Islam has led a U.S. Muslim group to decline joining in an interfaith event with him this week.
Several other U.S. Muslim leaders expressed similar concerns about the pope, but pledged to participate in the Washington gathering, saying the two faiths should do everything possible to improve relations.
Muslims and Roman Catholics each have more than 1-billion followers worldwide. U.S. Catholic and Muslim leaders started holding interfaith talks in the early 1990s, and many of the Muslim leaders invited to the event Thursday are veterans of those discussions.
But Salam al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, an advocacy group based in Los Angeles, said that the event seemed "more ceremonial than substantive" and that his group would not participate. He said he was disappointed that no time was made for even a brief private meeting with U.S. Muslim leaders.
U.S. Muslim group declines to meet pope