Following Abuse Meeting, Pope Visits New York

After what an historic meeting with victims of clergy sex abuse, Pope Benedict XVI is speaking at the United Nations and visiting a Jewish synagogue. Blogger Rocco Palmo discusses the pontiff's latest movements.

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(Soundbite of Placido Domingo)

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Those are the mellifluous sounds of Placido Domingo yesterday at Nationals Park in Washington D.C., where nearly 50,000 people attended mass given by Pope Benedict XVI. Later in the evening at Catholic University, the Pope addressed more than 200 people who head up Catholic schools around the country. But between the mass and the speech, the Pope met behind closed doors with five victims of clergy sexual abuse - what many Catholics are calling a historic milestone in healing the Church after the U.S. crisis. Rocco Palmo writes the Catholic blog Whispers in the Loggia and he's been in D.C. this week following all things Papal. He joins me now on the line. Hey Rocco.

Mr. ROCCO PALMO (Blogger): How's it going, Rachel?

MARTIN: Goes well. I want to start first with a little analysis about this closed-door meeting. Some victim's advocates say this is a great first step. It's long overdue but at least it's happened. Others say they're hollow words and the fact that it was held in secret behind closed doors symbolizes the larger problem, that they say, in the church, which is the lack of transparency. What kinds of reactions have you been hearing over the past 24 hours?

Mr. PALMO: Well, the first thing is, I don't understand why everybody's surprised. We talked about this at length on Monday morning. But the other, you know, again, this is not, you know, the whole purpose of it was not to be some sort of PR spectacle. You know, it just - would have lost the genuineness and emotion if it took place before cameras. If it took place, you know, with everybody, kind of writing away. This is the kind of thing that, really, you know, has to be done in private. Just for the - and the victims actually gave significant interviews both to NPR and to CNN shortly after it was over. And I think that tells us more than everything we need to know.

MARTIN: Earlier this week the Pope did meet with the American bishops, and he pretty much criticized them for how they have handled the abuse crisis. Did he talk in specifics about what they should have done in the wake of the sex abuse crisis?

Mr. PALMO: Yes, and if you have the text was - I remember I was reading the text Tuesday and I'm just - every one - I was just like almost like tearing my hair out. I said, oh my God, this should be - he's dropping - he's really dropping the bomb on them. I mean, I expected that the bishops were going to get the strongest speech of the week and, lo and behold and - but again, he talked about not just in terms of transparency, in terms of, you know.

He told them it was a really interesting line, that as when you work to eliminate this evil, know that you will have support of the church around the world, meaning himself, that everything he can do, you know, he's on deck with. And we're not done hearing from him about - I think, because today, this morning, he goes up to New York. He speaks to the U.N. He's not going to speak about it there. He may speak about it as sex abuse in a global context, actually, and the impetus for the international community to work on it together.

MARTIN: Now, you got a chance to attend the Pope's speech last night at Catholic University. He addressed heads of Catholic universities and other education officials. Describe the scene. I understand you got pretty close to Pope Benedict.

Mr. PALMO: Yeah. I was actually in the front row.

MARTIN: Wow.

Mr. PALMO: So it was - yeah, it was amazing. I had no idea, you know. All I knew is that I had a ticket and there'd be about 500 folks in the room and somebody came up to me before the speech and said congratulations. I said, yeah, I know, it's kind of new digs, I'm not used to being in a place like this. And then I was told, yeah, you're in the front row. What? You know, it kind of takes a bit of getting used to. You never get used to it, really. And so - and literally, I was second seat off the aisle.

MARTIN: So, you were pretty close to the Pope?

Mr. PALMO: Yeah. I got, you know, that's the thing. I noticed two things. Two things strike you first. He's got a really good tan the TV doesn't justify.

MARTIN: He has a tan. Interesting.

Mr. PALMO: And I'm Italian, and he's got a better tan than I do, so those daily walks on the terrace he's got at the Vatican surely helps.

MARTIN: Makes sense. Germans like the sun. They do like sunbathing.

Mr. PALMO: I guess so. Well, the tan was incredible and the shoes are really red. I mean, they are like really - like kind of almost fiery red and, I don't know, so that - and he's short. I mean, I knew he'd be short, but he's probably around, like, 5'2, 5'3. But it was just - he was running. And it's funny because so many of the Vatican core used to running behind schedule with John Paul II. The later events yesterday actually began ahead of schedule, 10, 15 minutes, which is unheard of.

MARTIN: So he was keeping on track. He was keeping on track.

Mr. PALMO: He was keeping on track and I'll tell you, the security, for all the kind of fears before - it seems as if everything's just kind of panned out flawlessly. The weather in D.C. yesterday was beautiful. And as the Pope rolled up to Catholic University, the thing that - I almost didn't go inside, it was - because there were 20,000 kids on the lawn and it was like some sort of - you know, mini festival out there. And they're all just in, you know, shorts and t-shirts hanging out. And so when the Pope rolls up, he gets out and the kids just get to see him and it was just like rapturous, rapturous walk.

MARTIN: What was the Pope's message to educators? There's been a lot in the news recently about the decline in attendance at Catholic schools, how many of these schools have been consolidated or shut down in the past 10 years - did he address that specifically?

Mr. PALMO: First thing, he actually went after the bishops again.

MARTIN: Really?

Mr. PALMO: Well, he - you know, he encouraged them because the thing is - because of '02 and also just because of declining enrollment in general in Catholic schools, and the increasing funds necessary to keep them open in a lot of cases. The first schools that have been cut, have been inner city schools. And he said, more than any other, you've got to keep the inner city schools open, first off. Second off, and again, this was the speech that was supposed to be the great whopper, while it was less a bang than a whimper, but he also just said, look, you have to look at forming in education, the whole person, you can't just give somebody facts and think you've taken care of them.

You have to teach them how to relay how to interact with the rest of the world. How to be a Christian in every situation and not just, you know, the kind of, you know, how to make the sign of the cross and how to say the prayers. So, it was a fascinating speech. It was just - but again, it wasn't this kind of hard edge, you know, the advanced presses said folks(ph) wouldn't read him the riot act and that, if anything, the exact opposite happened.

MARTIN: So, Pope Benedict is coming to New York today. He's going to speak at the U.N. and then he's going to make an historic - he's making lots of history this week, going to visit a Jewish synagogue. Rocco, do you know what triggered this visit? The first time a Pope has visited a Jewish synagogue.

Mr. PALMO: Well, there's a lot of back tensions to it. I think, there's still - there was still some kind of lingering suspicion in some parts of the Jewish community, given the Pope's youth in Nazi Germany. He was forced into the Hitler Youth and everything. That's one thing. The popes have only visited synagogues three times in history as of this afternoon. Two of those visits hold the name of Benedict, only John Paul made one in 1986 to a synagogue in Rome.

MARTIN: Yeah.

Mr. PALMO: Beyond that there's been a lot of controversy over this. The old form of the mass, the pre-Vatican II format of mass.

MARTIN: The Latin mass.

Mr. PALMO: The Latin mass, well, yeah, the Latin mass. And so, Benedict allowed it, granted it a wider opportunity to be celebrated last July, but many Jewish groups had a great deal of concern over one prayer that is used in the Good Friday service which only takes place once a year, asking God to lift the veil that blinds the Jewish people to save them from the darkness which keeps them from seeing.

MARTIN: So the Jewish community still has some serious beefs with Benedict, despite this, what is being hailedd as a historic first step in at least creating more dialogue. Rocko, we have to leave it there. Thank you very much for keeping us abreast of all the issues, all things papal this week. Rocko Palmo writes the blog, Whispers in the Loggia, about all things Catholic. Thanks, Rocko.

Mr. PALMO: Thanks, Rachel, have a great weekend.

MARTIN: Coming up on the show, the week in Iraq. We take a closer look at the Awakening Council. A group helping U.S. coalition forces fight al-Qaeda insurgents. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR news.

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