WASHINGTON — Feted at the White House on his 81st birthday, Pope Benedict XVI praised Americans for their deep religious beliefs Wednesday but later told the nation's bishops that the scourge of clergy sex abuse had sometimes been "very badly handled."
Pope Benedict's comments, his toughest critique yet of the U.S. church's worst problem, marked the second day in a row that he addressed the abuse scandal. They came as he addressed the nation's bishops at the imposing Immaculate Conception shrine.
He also reminded the prelates that religion cannot only be considered a "private matter" without any bearing on public behavior.
The pontiff questioned how Catholics could ignore church teaching on sex, exploit or ignore the poor, or adopt positions contradicting "the right to life of every human being from conception to natural death."
"Any tendency to treat religion as a private matter must be resisted," he said. Pope Benedict's remarks came on a day when all of the five Catholic justices on the Supreme Court approved the most widely used method of lethal injection, and congressional representatives who support abortion rights said they planned to take Holy Communion today at a papal Mass.
Pope Benedict returned to the clergy sex abuse scandal that has cost the American church more than $2-billion, most paid out to victims in the last six years, calling it a cause of "deep shame." He decried the "enormous pain" that communities have suffered from such "gravely immoral behavior" by priests.
Benedict addressed clerical molesters in the wider context of secularism and the oversexualization of America. "What does it mean to speak of child protection when pornography and violence can be viewed in so many homes through media widely available today?" he asked.
The German-born pope began his first full day in America with a visit to the White House, where a South Lawn crowd of more than 13,500 sang Happy Birthday, and President Bush said that the first papal White House visit in 29 years was a reminder for Americans to "distinguish between simple right and wrong."
The ceremony was followed by 45 minutes of private talks between Bush and Pope Benedict alone in the Oval Office.
Bush and Benedict agreed Wednesday that terrorism is an unacceptable weapon for any cause or religion. They also share common ground in opposing abortion, gay marriage and embryonic stem cell research.
But they disagree over the war in Iraq, the death penalty and the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. Benedict also speaks for environmental protection and social welfare in ways that run counter to Bush policies, according to a joint U.S.-Holy See statement.