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  Home :: Papal Visit - USA :: USA - Low-key pope to be center of attention
United States of America
The Pope and his addressing the issue of clergy and sexual abuse by priests.
Pope Benedict XVI will face scrutiny in a changing nation
01:32 AM CDT on Monday, April 14, 2008
By SAM HODGES / The Dallas Morning News

When Pope John Paul IImade his first papal visit to the United States in 1979, he was avigorous, charismatic 59-year-old who went to seven cities in six days,attracting huge, adoring crowds and massive media coverage.

This week, Benedict XVI, his successor, makes his first papal visithere. He's a reserved, bookish octogenarian, and his trip is confinedto Washington, D.C., and New York, with one big public event plannedfor each.

But he's still the pope leader of 1.1 billionCatholics worldwide and as such will get plenty of adulation andscrutiny.

Many American Catholics, including about 120from the Diocese of Dallas and 70 from the Diocese of Fort Worth, willtravel long distances just to be near him.

"As aCatholic, it's a great honor to be in the presence of the pope," saidTony Fox of Murphy, who saw Pope John Paul II in San Antonio in 1987and will attend a Mass offered by Benedict at the new Nationals Parkbaseball stadium in Washington.

"The feeling is wonderful. It's really unexplainable in words."

But in addition to having such rank-and-file Catholics in his corner,Benedict will have scholars and policy experts studying his every word,and reformers using his visit to push their agendas.

"Wethink this is a pretty major crossroads for the Catholic Church," saidDan Bartley, president of the 35,000-member Voice of the Faithful, agroup that recently took out a full-page New York Times adcalling for more action against clergy sex abuse, greater financialtransparency in dioceses and more laity say in church governance.

The German-born Benedict arrives Tuesday in Washington and departsSunday from New York. In between, he'll meet with President Bush, speakto U.S. Catholic bishops and educators, visit Ground Zero, address theUnited Nations and celebrate Mass at Nationals Park and Yankee Stadium.

While here, Benedict also will turn 81 and mark his third anniversary as pontiff.

As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he was known as a formidable theologianand the Vatican's chief enforcer of doctrine. For example, he wrote the1986 letter declaring the Rev. Charles Curran, an advocate ofliberalizing the church's stance on birth control, unfit to continueteaching theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington.

Benedict's early reputation as pope is more complicated. He cheeredtraditionalists (and discouraged some others) by allowing broader useof the Latin Mass. But he found general approval by devoting his firsttwo encyclicals to the subjects of love and hope.

Fans ofthose writings include Father Curran, who found refuge at Dallas'Southern Methodist University in 1991 and remains on the faculty there.

"As the center of unity in the church, he should above allspeak to people about what the core Christian message is, and certainlynothing is more central than hope or love," Father Curran said.

Many Americans are still getting to know Benedict, which is clearly one reason for this trip.

A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 52 percent of Americansand nearly three-fourths of American Catholics view him favorably. But30 percent of Americans surveyed said they didn't know him well enoughto have an opinion.

Benedict also is decidedly less popular with Americans than John Paul II was, the study shows.

"There was a connection between John Paul II and the masses," said Mr.Fox. "Benedict is attempting to get there."

Bishop KevinFarrell of the Diocese of Dallas agreed that John Paul was far moreextroverted than the current pope. But he said Benedict will surpriseAmericans as a communicator.

"He is able to explain in the simplest of terms the most complex of world problems," he said.

No one can seriously dispute that the United States is crucial to Benedict as head of the Catholic Church.

About 65 million Americans or 22 percent of the population areCatholic. That's among the largest national Catholic populations, andone the larger church depends on financially.

Texas andthe Southwest represent one of Catholicism's great growth areas, areality Benedict acknowledged last year by elevating Archbishop DanielDiNardo of Houston. He's now Cardinal DiNardo the first in the regionto hold that title.

But if the U.S. is a Catholic stronghold, it's one full of change and trouble.

While the proportion of Americans who are Catholic has remained steady,that's largely because of Hispanic immigration. A Pew study found thatroughly a third of those raised Catholic in the U.S. have left thechurch.

There's concern that even Hispanics are not staying in the fold.

"That's kind of an unwritten story," said Timothy Thibodeau, a historyprofessor at Nazareth College in New York and close student of theVatican. "The Catholic Church is losing thousands of people toPentecostal or megachurches."

The child sex abuse scandalinvolving U.S. priests cost the church $615 million last year, andtotal costs exceed $2 billion. Meanwhile, priests are in desperatelyshort supply, with more than 3,000 U.S. parishes lacking even one inresidence.

But experts don't see the conservativeBenedict embracing major reforms or spending much time here talkingabout the state of the church in the U.S.

David O'Brien,professor of history and Roman Catholic studies at the College of theHoly Cross in Massachusetts, noted that Boston, where the clergy abusescandal was acute, didn't make the pope's itinerary, despite lobbyingfrom some U.S. bishops.

"I guess if he went to Boston,then sex abuse would be the theme of the visit," he said. "He'll haveto address it at some point. He'll probably pick his spot."

Dr. O'Brien sees the visit's likely climax as the address to the UnitedNations and expects Benedict to make a strong call for peace andjustice. Father Curran said he's eager to see if Benedict will use themeeting with educators to stress the church's authority over Catholicuniversities.

Others speculate that Benedict will talkabout the environment (a surprising emphasis of his papacy) andimmigration, and he'll almost certainly underscore the church'sopposition to abortion.

For Maria Rudnik of St. ElizabethAnn Seton Parish in Plano, the anticipation is more personal. She wasthrilled to get a sidewalk look at John Paul II in 1979, and sheapplied early for one of the Diocese of Dallas' free tickets to theMass with Benedict at Nationals Park.

How excited is she?

"You have no idea," she said. "I am very much looking forward to meeting my dear pope."

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Pedophilia and sexual abuse of children in Australia