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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Pope Benedict on Wednesday acknowledged the Church had handled the pedophile priests scandal "very badly" and told U.S. bishops to bind up wounds and seek reconciliation with those who were "so seriously wronged."
For the second consecutive day, the pope said the scandal had caused "deep shame" and enormous pain as the result of priests betraying their vocation by sexually abusing minors with such "gravely immoral behavior."
After visiting the White House on Wednesday morning and praying with President George W. Bush, he dedicated a section of a speech to the bishops to the scandal that rocked the Church starting in 2002 and has forced U.S. dioceses to pay over $2 billion in damages.
"It is your God-given responsibility as pastors to bind up the wounds caused by every breach of trust, to foster healing, to promote reconciliation and to reach out with loving concern to those so seriously wronged," he said.
He said he agreed with an assessment by the head of the U.S. bishops conference that the crisis had been "sometimes very badly handled" and that only recently was "the scale and the gravity of the problem" more clearly understood.
The Church was criticized for transferring known abusers rather than defrocking them or turning them over to police.
"While it must be remembered that the overwhelming majority of clergy and religious in America do outstanding work ... it is vitally important that the vulnerable always be shielded by those who would cause harm," Benedict told the bishops at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.
But he said the problem ran deeper, saying children should be "spared the degrading manifestations and the crude manipulation of sexuality so prevalent" in society today.
On Wednesday morning, the pope made just the second visit by a pontiff to the White House and urged Americans and their leaders to base social and political decisions on moral principles to create a more just society.
During the visit, the pope and Bush and his wife, Laura, who are Methodists, prayed together for the institution of the family, a Vatican spokesman said.
Both Bush and the pope have said the traditional family, based on the marriage of a man and a woman, is under threat.
"I come as a friend, a preacher of the Gospel and one with great respect for this vast pluralistic society," Benedict said after Bush welcomed him at a garden ceremony that included a fife and drum band in colonial garb and a 21-gun salute.
As some 10,000 people applauded, Bush cited the role of faith in U.S. life, saying, "Here in America, you'll find a nation of prayer."
Bush referred to the Sept. 11 attacks, which the pope will commemorate when he prays at Ground Zero, the New York site where the World Trade Center towers once stood. "In a world where some invoke the name of God to justify acts of terror and murder and hate, we need your message that God is love," he said.
The pope smiled as the crowd sang "Happy Birthday" and was treated to a large white cake inside the White House.
He sprinkled his speech with references to the U.S. founding fathers -- citing the Declaration of Independence and the first president, George Washington.
But he made no specific references to issues such as abortion and the Iraq war, avoiding anything that could be seen as commentary on the presidential campaign apart from saying that freedom demanded "reasoned public debate."
Benedict and Bush oppose abortion and embryonic stem cell research but differ on the Iraq war and capital punishment. As the pope spoke, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling clearing the way for executions to resume.
As U.S. and Vatican flags fluttered, it was Bush who referred to abortion, a hot-button issue particularly with the presidential election in November. "In a world where some treat life as something to be debased and discarded, we need your message that all human life is sacred," he said.
Outside the White House, some 200 people protested, with one banner reading: "Catholic priests are pedophiles." But the overwhelming number of those who lined his motorcade route welcomed the pope with joy, dancing and shaking tambourines as they waited for hours to glimpse him.
Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Matt Spetalnick, Andy Sullivan, David Alexander and Jeremy Pelofsky