VATICAN CITY -- Pope John Paul II told US bishops yesterday that the clergy sex-abuse scandal can be a renewing "moment of hope" for the church in the United States despite "outspoken hostility" from many of the faithful.
In remarks to bishops from Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas, John Paul said he had confidence in the American church and was sure that the bishops' willingness to address "past mistakes and failures, while at the same time seeking to learn from them, will contribute greatly to this work of reconciliation and renewal. Viewed with the eyes of faith, the present moment of difficulty is also a moment of hope."
He made the remarks in a private audience with about 20 American prelates, the first of several groups of US bishops who make regular visits scheduled every five years.
John Paul's comments seemed far more encouraging than when he summoned the American church hierarchy to Rome in April 2002, at the height of the sex-abuse scandal, and told US cardinals that there was no place in the priesthood for anyone who would abuse the young.
Nevertheless, he didn't minimize the scope of the scandal or its continuing impact in his speech yesterday.
"Our meeting is taking place at a difficult time in the history of the church in the United States," John Paul told the churchmen, according to a copy of his prepared remarks given to reporters by the Vatican. Participants said he delivered only some of them but that each prelate was given a copy of his text.
Bishop Francis Joseph Gossman of Raleigh, N.C., who attended the audience, said he was impressed by the pope's remarks about this being a time of hope and renewal for the church, but saddened too.
"My own sense, and I hope I'm wrong, is that it's going to be a long time before we are not hearing about the scandal every time anyone does something in the world," Gossman said. "It's not surprising that it's the first thing he mentioned, because it has really been the worst thing that has happened to the church in the US."
The scandal erupted two years ago, with dozens of reports that abusive priests had been moved from parish to parish rather than punished. Since then, about 700 accused priests and deacons have been removed from Catholic dioceses in the United States. The highest-ranking casualty was Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned as archbishop of Boston while under fire for mishandling abuse cases.
While the focus of the scandal has centered on the United States, the crisis has hit other countries, including Ireland, the Philippines, and the pope's homeland of Poland, resulting in the removal of a number of priests, the resignation of several bishops, and large damage settlements against the church.
John Paul said many US bishops told him during their one-on-one meetings this week about the "pain caused by the sexual-abuse scandal of the past two years and the urgent need for rebuilding confidence and promoting healing between bishops, priests, and the laity."
He said their jobs as teachers had grown increasingly difficult because of the sex scandal "and the outspoken hostility to the Gospel in certain sectors of public opinion" that followed.
But he told them they must not avoid their calling.
"Precisely because American society is confronted by a disturbing loss of the sense of the transcendent and the affirmation of a culture of the material and the ephemeral, it desperately needs such a witness of hope," he said.
Bishops, in particular, he said, needed to be better models and "be the first to conform" their lives to Christ and holiness.
There are about 46,000 Roman Catholic clergy in the United States.