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Pope makes historic White House visit

On the second day of his US visit, Pope Benedict XVI paid the first papal visit in three decades to the White House, where he urged President George W Bush to prefer diplomacy to war as a way of resolving conflicts.

world Updated: Apr 17, 2008 14:06 IST

Pope Benedict XVI received a rapturous welcome on Wednesday on his first papal visit to the United States but chided Americans for a moral breakdown he said that fueled the church's child sex scandal.

On the second day of his US visit, Benedict also paid the first papal visit in three decades to the White House, where he urged President George W. Bush to prefer diplomacy to war as a way of resolving conflicts.

But, aside from mentioning the plight of the country's Christians, he skirted mention of the Iraq war, on which the Bush administration and Vatican do not see eye to eye.

Everywhere he went, the pontiff was given a welcome sometimes more befitting a rock star than the octogenarian head of the world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics.

Some 13,500 people who gathered on the South Lawn of the White House sang "Happy Birthday" to Benedict, who turned 81 Wednesday, and the thousands gathered at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for evening prayer with the pope whooped, cheered and even whistled when his Popemobile pulled up outside.

The basilica's bells pealed, and inside the largest church in North America, people had no qualms about climbing onto pews to catch a glimpse as he came in through the eastern entrance.

Mobile phones and cameras were held aloft to capture the moment.

Hundreds of yellow and white banners of the Vatican fluttered under a cloudless blue sky, and joyous cries of "Viva il papa" echoed inside the National Shrine.

In a speech delivered after evening prayer, the pope berated US bishops for their poor handling of the decades-long pedophile priest scandal that has rocked the church.

But he failed to squarely lay the blame for it on the church. Instead, pointed to a breakdown in the values that underpin society and urged that they be urgently reassessed.

"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?" the pope lamented.

"Children deserve to grow up with a healthy understanding of sexuality and its proper place in human relationships. They should be spared the degrading manifestations and the crude manipulation of sexuality so prevalent today," he said.

Describing clerics who sexually abuse children as "gravely immoral," the pope warned that the scourge of pedophilia "is found not only in your dioceses but in every sector of society."

"It calls for a determined, collective response," he said, but did not outline any firm action that the Vatican intended to take to purge the church of pedophile priests.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops drafted a charter for the protection of children after the church was plunged into the worst crisis in its 200-year history in 2002 when the archbishop of Boston confessed he had protected a priest who had sexually abused young members of his church.

Benedict angered victim support groups by praising the bishops' efforts to heal the wound the scandal has left in the church.

"Five years ago, US bishops begrudgingly adopted some minimal promises on paper. There's no evidence to suggest they've had any real impact," Barbara Dorris, outreach director for the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests (SNAP), told AFP.

"The pope continues to stand behind his men - the bishops who conceal clergy sex crimes," said another SNAP member, Joelle Casteix.

"What the pope should be doing is assuring Catholics worldwide that any bishop who shields a predator will lose his job and the priests will be swiftly defrocked," she said.

Earlier, in a one-on-one meeting in the Oval Office, the pope and the president expressed concern for Christians in war-torn Iraq, agreed on the need to create a Palestinian state, and said Lebanon must be free of undue foreign influence, according to a joint statement released by the White House.

The pope urged the United States to treat immigrants humanely, and called on Americans to spurn materialism and shun secularism.

At the end of the National Shrine service, Benedict was presented with a "birthday" check for 870,000 dollars from the US bishops and Catholics, to be put toward charitable causes, and treated to another round of "Happy Birthday."

Benedict is expected to recieve another rousing welcome when he celebrates mass on Thursday before 48,000 people in Washington's new baseball stadium.

On Friday, he will travel to New York, for the second and final leg of his visit which will include a visit to the United Nations and Ground Zero.