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President Meets Pontiff in Vatican Visit

President Bush left Rome Tuesday after making a visit to Pope John Paul II, in which the pontiff was reluctant to discuss the child sex abuse scandals that are rocking the U.S. Catholic Church as well as the war on terrorism.

The two met for a half hour and also discussed the Middle East and Russia, according to White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.  Earlier in the day, Russia was accepted as a junior member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Prior to the meeting, the pope welcomed the president in his elaborate study at the Vatican, and motioned for Bush to sit across from him at the desk.

Bush said, "Thank you for receiving me."

Afterward, the president and 82-year-old pontiff posed for pictures.  John Paul was heard to say, "I am very grateful for your visit" to the senior members who accompanied Bush, including Secretary of State Colin Powell and adviser Karl Rove. 

Initially, the pope had not wanted to discuss the church scandals in his first meeting with the U.S. president since the Sept. 11 attacks. It originally was not on the schedule, but Bush said Tuesday morning that he wanted to discuss it because he was concerned about the Church's perceived prestige in the United States and its importance to the estimated 78 million Catholics in the country.

"I'm going to listen closely to what the Pope has to say," Bush said. "I will tell him that I am concerned about the Catholic Church in America, I'm concerned about its standing.  I say that because the Catholic Church is an incredibly important institution in our country."

"I'm also going to mention the fact that I appreciate the pope's leadership," he added. 

Last month, the pope summoned U.S. cardinals to the Vatican to discuss the sex scandals. He condemned sexual abuse by priests as criminal, and said there is no room in the priesthood for those who engage in such behavior.

The two last met in July to discuss stem cell research, which the pope opposes. Bush decided last August to allow limited federal research on some stem cells.

The pope usually takes Tuesdays off, when in earlier years he would go skiing or hiking in the mountains. Now, with failing health, the pontiff no longer has such a vigorous schedule, and in public events stands on a podium which is pushed around for him.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.