By John-Henry Westen

WASHINGTON, DC, April 15, 2008 ( – Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Washington, DC today, just prior to 4pm. He was greeted on the tarmac by US President George W. Bush – a historic moment as it was the first greeting on the tarmac of a foreign diplomat by the President. Mrs. Bush and daughter Jenna also joined the President in welcoming the Holy Father when he arrived at Andrews Air Force Base for a six-day visit to the United States that will take him to Washington and New York City.

Upon arrival Pope Benedict was also greeted by several Church officials, including: Archbishop Pietro Sambi, Vatican nuncio to the United States; Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops; Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington and Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services USA.

Hundreds of other invited guests cheered and sang a loud and slightly premature Happy Birthday to Benedict, who will celebrate his 81st birthday tomorrow, as the Pope exited the plane .The Holy Father will begin his activities in the US tomorrow with a visit to President Bush in the White House, followed by a public parade route, after which he will address the US Bishops at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

The Pope arrived on an Alitalia flight dubbed “Shepherd One.” During the flight members of the Vatican Press Corps asked about the child sexual abuse scandal.

The Pope responded: “Really it is a great suffering for the Church in the United States and for the Church in general and for me personally, that this could happen. If I read the histories of these victims, it is difficult for me to understand that priests betrayed in this way, their mission to give healing, to give the love of God to his children.”

“We were deeply ashamed,” he continued and then spoke about ensuring that such incidents would not happen in the future. He spoke of acting on three levels, that of justice, pastoral and prevention.

In addressing the first level, justice, the Holy Father noted that he was leaving aside, at least for now, the issue of homosexuality. “I would not speak in this moment about homosexuality but about pedophilia is another thing,” he said. 

“We would absolutely exclude pedophiles from the sacred ministry,” he continued. 

A media storm could have erupted had the Pope chosen to address homosexuality directly in that context.  Soon after he became Pope, Benedict XVI signed off on an official instruction which forbade “those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘gay culture’” from entering seminary and thus becoming priests. (see the document here: )

He also spoke of the pastoral assistance of the clergy and the faithful that should be given to the victims of such abuse.  In terms of prevention he spoke of the work to reform seminaries.  

With the “visitation of the seminaries” he said, the Church was ensuring that seminary rectors would exercise “discernment that only really sound persons can be admitted to the priesthood and only persons with a deep personal relationship to Christ and have a deep sacramental love to exclude that this can happen.”

“It’s more important to have good priests than many priests,” he said.

The Holy Father concluded, “We will do all that is possible to heal this wound.”

  Hear the full audio of the Pope’s response on the airplane: