George and Laura Bush and their daughter, Jenna, travelled to Andrews Air Force Base to greet Pope Benedict XVI yesterday after the pontiff flew to the US saying he was "deeply ashamed" of the sexual abuse scandal that has stained the reputation of the Catholic Church.
Mr Bush, a born-again Christian, holds the Pope in high esteem as a fellow religious conservative. It is the first time in seven years in office that the President has welcomed a foreign dignitary by leaving the White House.
After the red-carpet treatment in Maryland, Pope Benedict travelled to Washington under tight security in a large motorcade to begin his six day visit. On his flight to the US, the pontiff said the sexual abuse of children had caused "great suffering" for the Church and "me personally". More than 5,000 sexual abuse victims have come forward since 2002. The scandal has cost the Church $2bn (£1bn) in damages.
"It is a great suffering for the church in the United States and for the Church in general and for me personally that this could happen," he said. "As I read the histories of those victims, it is difficult for me to understand how it was possible that priests betrayed in this way.
"Their mission was to give healing, to give the love of God to these children. We are deeply ashamed and we will do what is possible that this cannot happen in the future."
"Who is guilty of paedophilia cannot be a priest," he added, stating that the Church was now reviewing candidates for the priesthood.
The Pope and Mr Bush have been sharply at odds over the war in Iraq, however. When he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict acidly dismissed the idea of the Iraq conflict as a "just war". This did not stop Mr Bush declaring himself "in awe" of him when they met at the Vatican last summer. The President's effort to ingratiate himself continues today with a White House reception for 2,000 prominent Catholics, followed by a banquet.
Oddly, however, Pope Benedict will not be attending the dinner in his honour. Instead, on his 81st birthday, he will spend his time at the huge Catholic Basilica in north-east Washington, keeping a respectful distance from Mr Bush. The Pope will also travel to New York to speak at the UN, but he is steering clear of the Catholic stronghold of Boston – the scene of some of the Church's worst child sex scandals.
The White House explains the Pope's absence from the banquet in his honour as a scheduling clash. But a more likely reason is the Pope's desire not to become too closely associated with a discredited president who needs all the help he can to help Republicans hold on to the White House.
Catholics are an important swing vote in this year's election and are being targeted by both parties. The Democrats were shocked to lose Catholic support to Mr Bush in 2004 and do not want a repeat this year.
The battle is fierce between Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and the Republican John McCain for Catholic votes. The three have paid careful respect to the Pope's visit. During the campaign the two Democrats have often spoken about "values," as a way of reaching out to church-going Americans. They have pushed such issues as economic justice, which the Vatican is keen on, while steering away from abortion, over which they are at odds.
Ahead of his arrival, the media has teemed with items outlining the challenges the Pope faces in America. But he may have more insight into the US than any other in history. He was briefly an American prisoner of war after deserting from the German army in May 1945. Before becoming Pope he visited the US five times as enforcer of the faith, usually to deal with dissident Catholics.