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With U.S. visit, pope projects softer image

But questions remain about next steps in the sexual-abuse crisis and outreach to young Catholics.

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At ground zero: Pope Benedict XVI took part Sunday in a candle-lighting ceremony at the World Trade Center site in New York.

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

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By most accounts, Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the United States achieved its paramount purpose – to inspire hope among American Catholics and others looking for encouragement in troubling times.

With his face-to-face meeting with sexual-abuse victims, he stirred fresh expectation within a US church that has long been in limbo. He reminded Americans and those at the United Nations of the moral strengths – and responsibilities – of free and prosperous nations. His soft-spoken manner and nuanced messages gave a very different impression from his reputation as a hard-nosed conservative.

"Honestly, I don't believe he could have done a better job of remaking his image," says Paul Lakeland, director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut.

The jubilant welcome from the crowds, however, doesn't mean Roman Catholics are ready to change their views on church teachings. And along with sighs of relief, serious questions remain in the minds of the faithful. What happens now with the sexual-abuse crisis? Will words lead to actions? And what will he do to reach young Catholics, who are increasingly disconnected from the church?

Without doubt, the most momentous event of the six days was the pope's secret session in Washington with five victims of abuse from Boston. It was the only meeting in which he did most of the listening.

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