Pope visits troubled US Catholics in shadow of campaign

By Laszlo Trankovits, DPA

Washington : Pope Benedict XVI is set to find in his visit to the US a rich and powerful Roman Catholic Church, but also one divided and rather anxious: sexual abuse scandals have damaged its reputation and pushed some dioceses close to ruin.

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The third-largest national Roman Catholic Church in the world – after Brazil and Mexico – is, like those in other countries, suffering from a scarcity of priests: there are currently some 46,000 in the US, 17,000 fewer than in 1965. There are also 116,000 fewer nuns.

The estimated 70 million Catholics in the country are also deeply divided on issues relating to faith, modernity and politics.

In the US, the pope arrives during a heated presidential campaign. Benedict, considered an opponent of the Iraq war, is likely to speak much more clearly about abortion and sexual morals.

Many US bishops have expressed annoyance with Catholic universities, which in the opinion of the church hierarchy are much too liberal. According to opinion polls, only a fifth of Catholic youths share the papal views on contraception, abortion and divorce.

The invitation that Mercyhurst College, in Pennsylvania, extended to Senator Hillary Clinton – who like fellow-Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama stands by the right to abortion – led Bishop Donald Trautman to boycott the Catholic institution.

The pope will not scold or judge, Cardinal Francis George, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a TV interview.

However, it is no accident that Benedict plans to address over 200 presidents of Catholic colleges at the Catholic University of America in Washington.

He is sure to demand that the core of the teachings on faith not be ignored, the cardinal said. George added that this means in particular the condemnation of all killings, including those also of the unborn.

Discussion and dissent are rife in the US church because of these and other moral questions.

The US church is increasingly being shaped by Latinos, US citizens of Latin American origin who are regarded as particularly traditional. A recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life said they make up 29 percent of all Catholics and are predominantly young, making them likely to influence the church for decades to come.

However, 63 percent of US Catholics believe that the church’s position on contraceptives is wrong. An estimated 58 percent are in favour of ordaining women as priests, according to an opinion poll published in the US News and World Report.

Due to sex scandals, the reputation of the US church as a pillar of morality has been severely damaged. Moreover, in 2007 alone, it had to pay over $615 million in damages to victims of sexual abuse. In total, such scandals have cost the church around $1.5 billion.

However, clean-up efforts following the scandals have hardly managed to get the church off its defensive stance, and conservative TV commentator Bill O’Reilly recently referred to it as an anxious church.

Still, Cardinal George stressed that no one involved in a scandal is now active in the church.

The US Bishops’ Conference insists it has since launched a comprehensive precaution and protection programme set to prevent new cases of abuse. Control of life within churches has been reinforced, training of the clergy and their aides has been intensified and the mechanism to assist victims has been improved.

However, it will still take the US church a long time to put the scandals behind it, and Benedict is indeed expected to address the issue.

“This is a complete betrayal of our own office and of Jesus Christ, and of our Catholic people. (The pope) is very clear on that, and I imagine he’ll express it forcefully,” George said.