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Pope Expresses Deep Shame Over Clergy Sex Abuse Scandal

Pope Benedict XVI says he is "deeply ashamed" of the sex abuse scandal staining the U.S. Catholic Church and is pledging to work to make sure pedophiles do not become priests. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel has details from Washington.

Speaking to reporters aboard the Alitalia airliner taking him from Rome to his first papal visit to the United States, Pope Benedict says the sex scandal has caused great suffering for the church and for him personally.

The pontiff says it is difficult for him to understand how priests could betray their mission to children.

Benedict says he is deeply ashamed by the scandal and that pedophiles will be banned from ministry.

This is the first visit by this pope to America and it comes after a massive scandal erupted involving sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests.

The church has paid at least $2 billion to victims of abuse since 1950, the majority of it since 2002. Hundreds of priests have been removed.

Both U.S. Catholic cardinals and groups representing victims have recommended that the pope meet with some of the abused church members during his visit, although no such meetings have been announced.

Helen Alvare, an associate professor of law at Catholic University, chaired a commission investigating clerical abuse.

"One of the greatest sorrows, the greatest violations, was what I would almost say was an inability to understand how deep the violation goes," she said. "As a church that speaks about the sacredness of sex, one would think that we would have had a grip on how deep that violation went for those children and the those families and we did not seem to."

Most Catholic dioceses in America now require criminal background checks on employees. They are also teaching parents, children and teachers how to recognize and respond to signs of abuse.

Catholic University Provost James Brennan says the church has taken major steps to address the scandal.

"Once the hierarchy and the church in general realized the severity of the problem, the devastation that the problem brought upon children, I think that the proactive steps that the bishops have taken to address that in a Christian, loving way, has been positive," he said.

A newly released poll by the Washington Post newspaper says 74 percent of American Catholics have favorable views of Pope Benedict.

However, nearly the same number, 73 percent, say they do not approve of how the Catholic Church has handled the sex abuse scandal.

While in the U.S., the pope will mark two personal milestones. His 81st birthday is Wednesday. Saturday marks the third anniversary of his election as pontiff.

Some information for this report was provided by AP and Reuters.