updated 8/17/2007 2:43:03 PM ET 2007-08-17T18:43:03

In his first visit to the United States since his appointment, the Vatican’s top diplomat said the Roman Catholic Church has responded to the U.S. clergy sexual abuse crisis with “dignity and courage.”

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, spoke at a news conference at the annual convention of the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic fraternal organization.

Speaking through an interpreter, Bertone called the “business” created in the United States around the clergy abuse scandal “unbearable,” according to a Knights of Columbus transcript.

He added: “I hope that other institutions and social agencies will face this same problem with their members, with an equal degree of courage and realism as the Catholic Church has done.” He questioned whether other institutions have financially supported victims and “taken care of the victims and those who are guilty.”

Bertone also was asked about the role of Catholics in public life, an issue that took on greater significance in the 2004 presidential election and could re-emerge as a factor in the 2008 race.

“I don’t understand how a person in public office or one engaged in political activity can be obliged to renounce his Catholic identity because the party, be it in the U.S. or in other countries, imposes an ethical choice on the basis of the party’s program,” he said. “This, according to me, does not respect freedom of conscience.”

Bertone was appointed to the Vatican’s No. 2 post last year. Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to visit United Nations headquarters in New York in 2008; details of the pontiff’s first U.S. trip have not been released.

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