Before he was elected to succeed John Paul II, the modern era's most popular pope, the cardinal who would become Pope Benedict XVI earned the nickname "the Rottweiler" for his staunch enforcement of Roman Catholic orthodoxy. But for a pope so steeped in the infallibility of the church, Benedict's visit to America this week will be remembered for his historic reaching out to the victims of the very church he leads — those thousands of children sexually molested by priests in the past five decades. His decision to focus on their pain and the church's betrayal sent a powerful message of healing to a fractured and ambivalent American church.
No single trip — even one so sweeping with pageantry and spiritually moving as a pontifical visit — can wipe away the physical and emotional damage that generations of Americans have had to carry. This pope, after all, was part of the leadership that kept a lid on the sex abuse scandal. The church has yet to come to terms with its legal and moral culpability. It has paid out $2-billion since the scandal broke six years ago, losing both clergy and dioceses in the process, to say nothing of the lost faith and financial support of American Catholics angered that Rome would not come clean.
Benedict took the first major step this week by facing a crisis with both a human and spiritual component. He addressed the abuse scandal with reporters Tuesday on his flight from Rome, setting the stage for the week to come. By Thursday he had raised the issue three times, during Mass at Nationals Park in Washington, and again in a surprise meeting with several victims from the Boston area, in what is the first publicly known meeting between a pope and victims since the scandal broke.
Make no mistake: Benedict is a doctrinal conservative. But he showed on this visit a depth of character and a capacity to unify through contrition as much as with an iron fist. The church needs to build on Benedict's remorse. His message should be seen as a monumental start for a church that never seemed to get it.