WASHINGTON (AFP) — Pope Benedict XVI will pay his first visit to the United States next April, officials said Monday, at a time when the US Catholic Church is struggling to overcome a long-running pedophilia scandal.
The pontiff will visit Washington and New York April 15-20 to celebrate open-air Masses at baseball stadiums, visit Ground Zero and to address the United Nations, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) said.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said that Benedict would miss a "golden opportunity" by not visiting Boston, the epicenter of the scandal involving decades of sexual abuse of children by Catholic clerics.
However, Church elders said the first papal visit to the United States since Pope John Paul II last came in 1999 was an occasion to rejoice.
"This is a blessed moment for our nation," USCCB president Bishop William Skylstad said in a statement. "Pope Benedict is not just the leader of Catholics, he is also a man of inspiration for all those who work for peace."
The German-born pope is scheduled to arrive in Washington on April 15 and receive an official welcome from President George W. Bush at the White House the next day, his 81st birthday.
"The president and Mrs (Laura) Bush look forward to His Holiness spending time in Washington and in the United States, for his first visit to the United States next spring," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
On April 17 the pope will celebrate Mass at the new Washington Nationals baseball stadium, before heading to New York to address the United Nations on April 18, at the invitation of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
On April 19, the third anniversary of his election as pontiff, Benedict is due to celebrate Mass at New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral before visiting the site of the fallen World Trade Center the next day.
After his tour of Ground Zero, the pope is scheduled to round off his US visit with Mass at New York's Yankee baseball stadium.
Cardinal Edward Egan of New York said the response of the city's faithful "was both rejoicing and thanksgiving to the Lord for the great grace of the presence of the successor of St. Peter in our midst."
The Catholic Church counts some 69 million followers across the United States, including many in the fast-growing Hispanic community.
But it has been on the defensive for years over the revelations of widespread abuse by priests dating back in some cases to the 1940s.
The scandal finally broke when the Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law, confessed in early 2002 that he had protected a priest whom he knew had sexually abused young members of his church.
From 1950 to now, more than 5,000 US priests have been exposed by their archdioceses as pedophiles, according to the Bishop Accountability.org website.
"We believe that double or triple that figure actually have abused kids," said the website's co-director Anne Barrett Doyle, who accused the pope of avoiding Boston for fear of protests.
Cardinal Egan in New York has been reluctant to release documents on accused priests, unlike the Boston archdiocese's policy of belated disclosure, critics argue.
"So the pope is sending the signal that he is honoring the cardinal who may be his most successful keeper of secrets," Doyle said. The New York archdiocese could not be reached for comment.
Catholic authorities in the United States have paid out close to 2.8 billion dollars in damages to victims, many of whom accused the Church of turning a blind eye to the sexual abuse.
SNAP national director David Clohessy said the Vatican had "played a fairly abysmal role" in the scandal, by failing to punish implicated individuals or even promoting some of them.
"We would hope that he would use this visit to announce genuine reform that would better protect kids in the future," he said of the pope's visit.
Doyle called on the pope "to tell his US bishops to release every name of accused priests, and stop fighting victims in court, and take all the money they're spending on defense lawyers and public relations and create a fund for the victims instead."
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