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Pope Benedict XVI heals wounds, builds bridges on US visit

Pope Benedict XVI went out of his way to use a historic trip to the United States to heal the wounds left by a church sex scandal and build bridges with Jews, smarting over a controversial Catholic prayer.
AFP | By Martine Nouaille and Karin Zeitvogel, New York
UPDATED ON APR 21, 2008 09:10 AM IST

Pope Benedict XVI went out of his way to use a historic trip to the United States to heal the wounds left by a church sex scandal and build bridges with Jews, smarting over a controversial Catholic prayer.

The Vatican had said that the keynote event in Benedict's first papal visit to the United States would be the speech he pronounced Friday at the United Nations, in which the leader of the world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics used his moral authority to promote human rights and urge greater dialogue between religions.

But the diplomatic side of his visit -- the UN speech and a meeting at the White House with President George W. Bush, at which the pope pleaded the case for diplomacy over war -- almost took on a secondary role to the human, personal issues the pope pushed to the fore.

Even before arriving at Andrews Air Force base near Washington, the pontiff raised the long-running sex scandal, saying it had made him feel "deeply ashamed."

"The Church will do everything it can to heal the wounds caused by pedophile priests" and ensure "events of this kind are no longer repeated," he told reporters on the specially chartered Alitalia plane.

He mentioned the scandal in nearly every homily and speech he gave during the six-day visit, reiterating his shame, chastising the US church for its handling of the scandal, but calling on Catholics to stand by the church and clergy.

And then he took the unprecedented and unexpected step of meeting in Washington with victims of predator priests, and that action spoke louder than any words.

"He shared their sorrow ... He said, 'I know you're hurt and I'll do everything in my power to help.' He's gone beyond saying and moved into doing, and that's what people want," Chase Pepper, 23, told AFP after attending Benedict's last mass of the visit at Yankee Stadium in New York.

In another example of the German-born pope taking controversy by the horns, he added two events to an already busy itinerary, especially for an 81-year-old: a private meeting with Jewish leaders in Washington and the first visit to a synagogue on US soil.

Although far improved since the end of World War II, when Jews accused the Catholic church of turning a blind eye to the atrocities committed against them, relations between Catholics and Jews were strained recently when a controversial prayer, calling for Jews to be converted, was reintroduced.

"Your visit today ... is a reaffirmation of your outreach, goodwill and commitment to enhancing Jewish-Catholic relations," Rabbi Arthus Schneier, a Holocaust survivor who hosted the German-born pope at Park East synagogue, said.

Howard Rubinstein, vice-chairman of the Holocaust Museum in New York, praised the pope's gesture towards the Jewish people.

"In coming here he has made a spectacular effort to create good will between our two religions and that means an awful lot, particularly in view of the suffering we had during the war and the historical relationship that existed," Rubinstein told AFP.

At the United Nations, the pope pressed states to protect their people from "grave and sustained violations of human rights," and criticised "the decisions of a few" for compromising multilateral efforts to resolve the world's problems.

He repeatedly stressed the need to foster dialogue between cultures and religions at a time of tension between the West and the Islamic world.

At the White House on his 81st birthday, he called for the war on terror to be waged using means that respect human dignity -- in other words, excluding torture.

He pleaded for an end to sectarian hatreds as he prayed at Ground Zero, where the Twin Towers stood before hijackers rammed passenger planes into the skyscrapers, killing nearly 3,000 people, on September 11, 2001.

He hailed the United States as a country of great freedoms, in particular the freedom to worship as one chooses.

And he tipped his hat to the large Hispanic immigrant population in the United States, which has become a pillar of the church, reading part of his homilies at Nationals Stadium in Washington and Yankee Stadium in New York in Spanish.

"His message is that ... it's not good to hate, to be prejudiced. We have to try hard not to judge people by race, the way they look or for their beliefs," Luis Munoz, 27, told AFP.

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