By RACHEL ZOLL, AP Religion Writer
The clergy sex abuse scandal had exhausted American Catholics.
After six years of painful revelations about guilty priests, apologies to victims, reforms and massive settlements, many hoped the issue could wither and fade into the background.
But Pope Benedict XVI's focus on the problem in his first papal visit to the U.S. — seen most dramatically in his private meeting with victims — showed that the spiritual leader of the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics believes his church still has healing to do.
There is already one tangible impact. The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said dozens of new people have come forward in the last few days to say they were molested as children. Many told the Survivors Network they were drawn by the pope's remarks.
Teresa Kettelkamp, who oversees child protection programs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, had been cautioning church leaders against "issue fatigue" on abuse. Kettelkamp said she expects more people to come forward with claims in the coming months because of Benedict's actions.
The pope's visit has now made it impossible to play down the problem, she said.
"The fact that he mentioned the issue on the plane on the way over here and has continued to mention it nearly every time he's spoken — it's just so much on the radar now for all of us," Kettelkamp said Sunday, the final day of Benedict's trip.
Many Catholics feared the scandal would overshadow Benedict's message to Americans. But it was the pope who made the problem a centerpiece of his visit.
Benedict did address many other issues, including immigration rights, terrorism, human rights and, of course, Catholic faith and practice. He was met with an enthusiasm that spread among the general public, who lined the streets by the hundreds to see him.
But the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said that the pope had made the abuse scandal a core theme of the entire trip, "to give hope to the church in the United States."
Before his plane from Rome had landed Tuesday in Washington, he said that he was "deeply ashamed" of the scandal and pledged to keep pedophiles out of the priesthood.
He later told the nation's bishops that the problem had sometimes been very "badly handled" — an indirect but clear papal admonition. The bishops had a "God-given duty" to reach out with compassion to victims, he said.
Benedict then took a step that no other pope is believed to have taken. He met privately with five people who had been molested by priests in the Archdiocese of Boston, where the long-simmering problem erupted in 2002 and spread nationwide.
"In receiving them he was trying to reach out to all those who were affected by the sexual abuse crisis," said Cardinal Sean O'Malley, archbishop of Boston since 2003, who helped arrange the meeting.
Many advocates for victims wonder how much further Benedict is willing to go. They say children won't be safe unless the church creates an independent system to discipline bishops who fail to warn parents and police about abusive clergy. Only the pope oversees bishops.
Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb., has refused to participate in the bishops' child protection programs that aren't required by church law.
Ohio Judge Michael Merz, head of the National Review Board, a lay panel formed by the bishops to monitor their reforms, has said that Bruskewitz' conduct "scandalizes the faithful." Yet, there have been no public consequences for the bishop.
Cardinal William Levada, the former archbishop of San Francisco, who now leads the Vatican office that reviews abuse cases worldwide, said last Friday that he didn't know of any bishops guilty of "aiding and abetting" pedophiles, and would respond if he did. Bishops who have made mistakes, largely took advice that was accepted at the time but proved wrong, he said.
Jason Berry, a New Orleans writer who first drew national attention to clergy sex abuse in the 1980s, said Levada is essentially absolving himself along with his fellow U.S. prelates.
Levada was archbishop in Portland from 1986 to 1995. In 2004, Portland became the first American diocese to seek bankruptcy protection, eventually paying $52 million to 175 victims.
When Levada was archbishop of San Francisco, the chairman of a panel formed to help the archdiocese review abuse claims resigned in protest, accusing church leaders of "deception" for blocking the panel's findings.
Levada told reporters in a meeting at Time magazine's offices on Friday that it is possible church law could be changed to help crack down on abuse, though Lombardi stressed later that no immediate revisions are planned.
"This is a crisis that has built up over generations," Berry said. "You cannot expect it to simply disappear in the space of five years."
How the situation develops could depend on how willing lay Catholics are to confront their bishops. Despite Benedict's remarks, there might not be much appetite for that.
Many Catholics are tired of having their church singled out for a problem that they note is common but often ignored in wider society, and staggered by the thousands of accusations and more than $2 billion in costs from the crisis.
"The pastoral gesture toward sex abuse victims played out very well. I think he won over a lot of people. But will anything change?" asked David Gibson, a former Vatican radio newsman and author of the biography "The Rule of Benedict." "It seems clear that bishops will not be accountable. Is that reality going to sink in after the glow is gone?"
Copyright © 2008 The Associated Press.