NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Visiting the United States for the first time since becoming Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone addressed the biggest issues in the Church today.

He spoke at a press conference on controversial issues such as the clerical sex scandals, Catholic politicians who support abortion, the situation in Iraq and the Church in China.

The No. 2 man at the Vatican delivered a series of addresses at the Knights of Columbus’ annual convention on the role of the laity and the condition of the Church in the United States.

He held up as a model priest the founder of the Knights, Father Michael McGivney, and said that he takes a personal interest in his cause for canonization, which is being studied by the Vatican.

“I hope this recognition [of sanctity] will arrive soon, and I’ll personally work on this, so that this day will come soon,” Cardinal Bertone said during his homily, delivered in Italian, at the Aug. 7 opening Mass of the Knights of Columbus’ 125th annual national convention at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel in Nashville.

Cardinal Bertone’s comments on the sainthood cause of Father McGivney were met with applause from the Knights attending the Mass.

“I was thrilled,” Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., the supreme chaplain of the Knights of Columbus, said of Cardinal Bertone’s comments.

“I think he appreciates what it would mean for parish priests in the United States and around the world, to have one of their own canonized a saint,” Bishop Lori said in an interview on Eternal Word Television Network, which was broadcasting several events from the convention.

 The convention, held Aug. 7-9, marked the 125th anniversary of the Knights of Columbus, which was founded by Father McGivney and a handful of laymen in the basement of St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Conn.

On the first evening of the convention, Cardinal Bertone received the Knights’ highest honor, the Gaudium et Spes Award, which was first given in 1992 to Mother Teresa of Calcutta. It comes with a $100,000 gift that Cardinal Bertone said he will use for his favorite charities.

Cardinal Bertone held a wide-ranging press conference Aug. 8 for international media at the convention. Speaking in Italian with an English translator, he strongly criticized the high-priced lawsuits against some U.S. dioceses over clerical sexual misconduct, calling the legal actions “an unbearable business.”

He said that as secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he had “accompanied the American Church through this difficult period.” The Church faced the situation with “courage and dignity,” reaching out to victims while not consigning the offending priests “to perdition,” he added.

Cardinal Bertone called it a “false impression” that the Catholic Church has been the only institution to be hit with sexual scandals, saying, “I could only hope that all the other institutions and social agencies would have the same courage to face the situation as the Catholic Church has.”

“Notwithstanding the seriousness of the crimes that have been committed,” he said, “of the 44,000 priests here in the United States, only a small percentage has been involved in this, and we need to keep this in perspective.”

Regarding a suggestion that the Vatican issue guidelines for the reception of Communion by Catholic politicians who support abortion, Cardinal Bertone said that new norms are not needed since the Church’s teaching on the worthy reception of Communion is clear.

He said he finds a “deep contradiction” in the practice of political parties that claim to support “freedom of conscience” yet impose a particular view upon all members of the party.

“I can’t understand how a political party, either in this country or Italy, can impose an ethical choice on an individual,” he said. “I am speaking about views on abortion, homosexual ‘marriage,’ embryonic stem cells and others.”

The theme of the Knights of Columbus Convention was “125 Years of Faith in Action: Witnessing to the ‘Yes’ of Jesus Christ.” In keeping with past events, the event was attended by an international assemblage of nine cardinals, about 70 bishops and some 200 priests. Among them was Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino of Havana, Cuba, who spoke about the progress of the Church in his country since the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1999.

During the event, delegates from all 50 U.S. states, Canada, Mexico, the Philippines and Poland reaffirmed the organization’s pro-life commitment, and pledged opposition to homosexual “marriage” and support for natural marriage, as well as for laws protecting the conscience rights of health care professionals who opt out of immoral procedures.

In his annual report, Supreme Knight Carl Anderson, the order’s chief executive officer, voiced the same commitment, vowing that the order will “pursue laws that protect the life and dignity of every person and the integrity of marriage and family.”

He also reported that the Knights, a fraternal insurance organization, has more than 1.7 million members and $62 billion of insurance coverage for members and their families.

Celebrating the convention’s opening Mass on Aug. 7, Cardinal Bertone brought greetings from Pope Benedict XVI and preached on the life and virtue of Father McGivney, who was an assistant priest in New Haven when he founded the Knights. He died in 1890, and his cause for sainthood was opened in 1997. Details of a reported miracle attributed to his intercession are being studied by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints as a step in the beatification process.

The cardinal called the organization’s founding “a noble goal” that carried out Father McGivney’s “apostolic vision” of “helping others to recognize the call that Christ addressed to them, and to respond generously.”

Father McGivney anticipated by many years the Second Vatican Council, Cardinal Bertone said, because he “knew that it is not only priests and religious who have a vocation but that every Christian is called by Christ to carry out a particular mission in the Church.”

By their works of charity in parishes and communities, he added, Knights of Columbus are like the Good Samaritan.

“You bind the wounds of those you discover lying by the wayside and help restore them to health and strength,” he told delegates.

The Knights claim seven saints for their organization, six priests who were killed in the 20th-century persecution of the Church in Mexico, and Bishop Rafael Guizar Valencia of Veracruz, Mexico, who died in 1938 and was canonized by Pope Benedict last year.

Cardinal Bertone, a member of the Salesians of Don Bosco, won the praise and applause of convention attendees for his warm and engaging manner, especially when he joined in the spirit of the annual “States Dinner” honoring all of the countries, states and provinces represented at the event.

When the Vatican anthem was played, he sang loudly the Latin words, and stood often throughout the dinner to clap and wave the Vatican flag.

At a dinner in the cardinal’s honor, Anderson said that he appreciated the cardinal’s enthusiasm for sports and presented him with a Knights of Columbus soccer ball. Cardinal Bertone said that he will display the ball near the entrance to his Vatican offices.

Maria Caulfield is based in

Wallingford, Connecticut.