The leader of the Roman Catholic Church has spoken out about the sexual abuse of children by priests.

Benedict XVI gave a rare insight into his views to reporters accompanying him on his first Papal visit to the United States, which began yesterday.

In his comments the pontiff moved to dismiss the suggestion that he links sexual abuse of children with homosexuality.

In 2005 he caused controversy when he appeared to preclude men who may identify as homosexual from training for the priesthood as a response to revelations that thousands of children across the world had been sexually abused by Roman Catholic clergy.

A Vatican report commissioned by the Pope said that the church will ban men who “publicly manifest their homosexuality or show an overwhelming attraction to homosexual culture even if it is only intellectually.”

“It is difficult for me to understand how it was possible that priests betrayed in this way,” Benedict told reporters yesterday.

“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.

“I would not speak at this moment about homosexuality, but paedophilia which is another thing.

“And we would absolutely exclude pedophiles from the sacred ministry.

“Who is guilty of pedophilia cannot be a priest.

“We’ll do all that is possible to have a strong discernment, because it is more important to have good priests than to have many priests.”

Pope Benedict XVI is in the US until 20th April and will meet President Bush and address the United Nations.

It is Benedict’s first official visit to the US. His predecessor John Paul II visited seven times.

The ABC News poll released yesterday found that 60% of Roman Catholic Americans disagree with the ban on priests getting married, and the same number back women priests.

A group that works for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans in the Roman Catholic church is planning a series of protests against Pope Benedict during his visit.

The Rainbow Sash Movement said it is calling on “Catholics of good will” to take the Papal visit as an opportunity to shower the Pope mobile with ashes instead of confetti.

“Ashes are an ancient and appropriate greeting for a sinner who has caused the Church so much division and pain,” RSM said in a statement.

The group is calling for reform across a range of issues, from marriage for priests to stronger action against bishops who protected child-abusing clergy.