WASHINGTON — Pope Benedict XVI, beginning his first U.S. visit as pontiff Tuesday, wasted no time in confronting the sexual abuse scandal that has shaken the Roman Catholic Church in this country.
In his most extensive comments about the crisis to date, the pope said that he was "deeply ashamed" and that the scandal had caused "great suffering" for the church and for "me personally." Speaking to reporters aboard his flight from Italy, Benedict also pledged greater efforts by the church to bar pedophiles from the priesthood.
Vatican officials have said the pope may raise the issue again as early as today, when, in addition to visiting the White House, he is to meet with American bishops at Washington's National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
The abuse scandal, which has cost the U.S. church more than $2 billion in legal settlements -- $660 million of that in Los Angeles -- since it erupted in 2002, is only one of several controversial issues Benedict is likely to address during his six-day visit.
At the White House today, the pope is expected to raise the topic of immigration when he meets with President Bush. Benedict told reporters he was especially concerned by what he called the grave problem of families separated by immigration policies, as well as by border violence.
Another subject that could arise during his private White House session is the Iraq war, which the pontiff has strongly opposed.
The U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, Mary Ann Glendon, said in an interview that she did not expect Benedict to confront the president directly on the war.
More likely, she said, Benedict and Bush will discuss their mutual interest in "strengthening the global moral consensus against terrorism, especially confronting the problem of religion being used for terrorist violence."
Benedict's practice "is usually to find and encourage what he considers to be positive developments," said Glendon, who was among the dignitaries who greeted him at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington.
The pope, who turns 81 today, was welcomed by Bush upon his arrival at Andrews, in what the White House said was an unprecedented show of deference by the president for a foreign leader.
The white-haired pope, waving and smiling broadly, was met at the foot of the Alitalia airliner's stairs by the president, First Lady Laura Bush and their daughter Jenna, along with about 200 officials and guests.
There were no public statements made or planned; the pope and the president are to hold their discussion today after an official welcoming ceremony that was expected to draw as many as 9,000 guests to the South Lawn.
Benedict's visit to Washington and New York is the first trip to the U.S. by a pope since revelations of clergy sexual abuse were first made in Boston and later spread to dioceses nationwide.
The scandal, in which thousands of victims alleged they had been molested or raped by priests, bankrupted five dioceses and shattered families and parishes. Many of the victims were children at the time of the abuse.
Since assuming the papacy in 2005, Benedict has addressed the abuse issue more forcefully than his predecessor, John Paul II. And the statements during his flight Tuesday were strong and direct.
"We are deeply ashamed," he said. "We will do what is possible so this cannot happen again in the future."
Speaking in English and Italian as he answered four questions chosen from those submitted by reporters before the flight, Benedict said it was difficult for him to understand priests who had betrayed their sacred trust by molesting children, and he said the church was working to identify and exclude any seminary candidates who might harbor such tendencies.
"It is more important to have good priests than many priests," said Benedict, who will mark the third anniversary of his pontificate this week. "We will do everything possible to heal this wound."
A spokesman for a victims group, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said he appreciated the words but hoped for more.
"Talk is cheap, action is better," David Clohessy, national director of the group, said in an interview. "He's been pope for three years and a top Vatican official for three decades. Expressions of remorse and promises of reform . . . ring pretty hollow at this point."
No meeting with victims is scheduled, although Vatican officials have hinted that one may occur, perhaps informally and in private.
Such a session with the church's highest leader could be healing for at least some victims and, perhaps, the American church, one analyst said.
"If that were to happen and was perceived as a heartfelt, sorrowful expression of solidarity and remorse in the collective sense, that could be very significant," said R. Scott Appleby, professor of American religious history at the University of Notre Dame.