Pope Benedict XVI expresses sorrow over priest abuse as he opens controversial Britain trip

Queen Elizabeth II greets Pope Benedict XVI as he arrives in the United Kingdom for a four-day visit fraught with controversy.
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 16, 2010; 7:45 AM

LONDON - Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday began the first state visit by a pontiff to Britain -- a country that broke with the Vatican in the 16th century over Henry the VIII's divorce -- touching down in Scotland after offering his sharpest critique yet of the church's response to a roiling sex abuse scandal.

Speaking to reporters on the plane to Edinburgh, the first stop on his British tour, Benedict expressed "sadness" because "the authority of the church was not was not sufficiently vigilant and not sufficiently swift and decisive to take the necessary measures" to prevent thousands of cases of sexual abuse by Catholic clerics, revelations of which have plunged European Catholic churches into crisis this year.

Benedict said abusive priests must never have access to children, saying they suffered from an illness that mere "goodwill" couldn't cure, the Associated Press reported. The pope told reporters that victims of priest sexual abuse were now the church's top priority.

The four-day visit by Benedict was suffused with controversy and historic verve even before it began. Amid planned protests and a blistering gaffe by a top Vatican aide, official Britain rolled out the red carpet, with the Duke of Edinburgh, the husband of Queen Elizabeth II, breaking tradition by deferring to the pope and greeting him upon arrival. Typically, state guests go to the royals, not the other way around.

Benedict was later whisked away to the stately Palace of Holyroodhouse, the official Scottish residence of the Royal Family, to meet the queen. In back-to-back speeches, both the queen and Benedict sought to emphasize Christian unity, with the pope calling Britain a "mighty force for good" but also issuing a warning about the dangers of a society veering away from divine belief.

"As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheism extremism of the 20th century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and society and thus to a reductive vision of the person and his destiny," Benedict said.

The queen, who also holds the title of "supreme governor" of the Church of England, lauded the Vatican's efforts to aid in quelling the violence in Northern Ireland. She welcomed the pontiff by saying, "I'm pleased that your visit will deepen the relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England."

The pontiff was set to celebrate an open-air mass later Thursday at which Susan Boyle, the Internet-sensation-turned-recording-star, is scheduled to sing. In London on Friday, Benedict will address Parliament on the role of Christianity in contemporary life. On Saturday, he will meet both Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nicholas Clegg, an avowed atheist.

The pope also will reportedly meet with British victims of the sex abuse scandals that have roiled Europe and sparked the biggest crisis in the Catholic Church in years.

Benedict's unprecedented visit has provoked strong feelings across this island nation from the start. Months before he arrived, for instance, a memo making the rounds at the British Foreign Office suggested that the pontiff be invited to preside over a same-sex marriage and visit an abortion clinic while in town.

The young diplomats responsible were reprimanded, but the note's mixture of comedy and outrage aptly captures the mood of many Britons. By visiting this heavily secular nation, Benedict is, to quote the Guardian newspaper, "entering the lions' den."

Various groups - including the victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests - have banded together into an alliance dubbed "Protest the Pope" and are set to march Saturday through the streets of London as the German-born pontiff hosts a vigil in Hyde Park. A number of Britons, some with deeply held suspicions of Vatican motives, are also smarting from a campaign launched by Benedict to woo dissident Anglicans angry over the ordination of gay and female clerics. Still more are furious over the $30 million price tag for the trip, largely funded by British taxpayers as is customary for state visits.

On Wednesday, the controversy surrounding the pope's visit deepened when Cardinal Walter Kasper, a senior Vatican aide, pulled out of the trip after a German magazine quoted him as saying that landing at London's Heathrow Airport was like arriving in a "third world country" and that Britain is plagued by a "new and aggressive atheism." Officially, the Vatican said Kasper withdrew from the trip because of a flare-up of gout.

For Benedict, his British trip marks a broader campaign to raise the profile of religion in increasingly secular Europe, as well as to ease outrage over the string of sex abuse scandals involving Catholic priests that continue to rock the region from Ireland to Austria. He also appears to be doing something his critics have said he has thus far been reluctant to do: mend fences.

In what is set to be a historic highlight of the trip, Benedict will pray with the archbishop of Canterbury, the symbolic head of the Anglican Communion, at Westminster Abbey on Friday. On Sunday, he goes to Birmingham to beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman, who began his calling as an Anglican before being ordained to the Catholic priesthood in Rome in 1847.

The Vatican is dismissing the planned protests. "It is not surprising because these [protests] have happened before," the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, told reporters in Rome this week. But, he added, in Britain, the issue of protests is "a broader one because in the United Kingdom there are atheist groups, some of them anti-papal in nature, but also this forms part of a plural society like the British one."

The fact that British taxpayers are helping pay for the visit has clouded the issue, said Declan McCarthy, 31, a Catholic who lives in London. "The pope is the pope, and what he does is visit countries where there are Catholics," he said, adding that is especially important in countries where they are a minority.

Benedict, however, appears to be facing an uphill battle to restore the church's battered image in Britain and beyond. This week, for instance, the Catholic Church in Belgium is being taken to task again for its weak response to sex abuse allegations, and a fresh report surfaced in Britain showing that half of the Catholic clergy jailed for pedophilia remain in the priesthood, with many still receiving financial support.

Archbishop Keith O'Brian, Scotland's only Catholic cardinal, told the BBC on Thursday that Britain's Catholics were overjoyed about the visit. Asked if the pope should continue to apologize for the abuse scandals, he said, "Oh yes, it's Christian to apologize."

But Margaret Kennedy, representative of a London-based group of survivors of abuse by clerics, told the BBC that victims needed more than an apology. "It's not enough. … We want him to do something. I hope he comes off the plane with his bags filled with the files of these abusers."

Though many of the faithful have flown in from Ireland and points farther afield for the papal visit, observers say Benedict is unlikely to enjoy the same outpouring of affection that Pope John Paul II received in 1982. Though that trip - the first ever by a pope to Britain - lacked the full pomp of an official state visit, huge numbers, nevertheless, turned out to greet that very popular pope. He earned kudos despite his denunciation of the then-raging Falkland Islands war with Argentina.

This time, organizers are already scaling back turnout estimates for Benedict, who has become a lighting rod among social liberals because of his strict conservative line. One poll conducted for the Guardian showed that only 14 percent strongly backed the pope's visit, with a majority of 57 percent angered over the cost of the trip.

"We are not anti-Catholic, just anti-Benedict," said Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, one of the groups leading the protests this week in London. "Even polls among Britain's 6 million Catholics show they do not support his stance on contraceptives or homosexuality. This pope is quite clearly out of step, and there are a lot of people in Britain who have a beef with him."

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