U.S. President George W. Bush has met with Pope John Paul II and discussed the sex abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church in the United States. The president went to the Vatican following the signing of a NATO-Russia accord at an Italian military airbase.
The pontiff received President Bush in a private audience at the Vatican. It was the American leader's last meeting of his seven-day European tour before returning to Washington.
Vatican radio described the event as an "extraordinary" meeting between "the head of the universal church and that of the most powerful democracy on earth." It was the second meeting between President Bush and the pope.
At a NATO-Russia summit before the Vatican meeting, President Bush described the pope as "a man of enormous dignity and compassion".
Mr. Bush also told reporters that he would speak to the pope of his concern about the standing of the Catholic Church in the United States, which, he said, is an important institution.
The Catholic Church in the United States has been rocked by sex abuse scandals involving priests. High-level church officials have been accused of covering up the wrongdoing of their priests. Last month the pope called U-S cardinals to an emergency summit in Rome to discuss the matter.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer confirmed after the meeting that the matter was discussed during their 20-minute private talk. He said President Bush and the pope also discussed religious freedom in Russia, U.S. relations with Russia, and the situation in the Middle East.
Pope John Paul has just returned to the Vatican from a pastoral visit to Azerbaijan and Bulgaria. During that trip, his deteriorating health was evident. The pope's parting words to Mr. Bush were, "I hope I will be able to meet with you again."