In Britain, pope expresses 'sadness' over abuse scandal

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 Staff Writer
Thursday, September 16, 2010; 10:42 PM

LONDON - Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday began a four-day tour of Britain, the first-ever state visit by a pontiff to this island nation, by offering his sharpest critique yet of official lapses that allowed thousands of children to be sexually abused by clerics in a scandal that has rocked Catholic churches across Europe.

Speaking to reporters on the plane from Rome to Edinburgh, the first stop on his British tour, Benedict expressed "sadness" that "the authority of the church was not sufficiently vigilant and not sufficiently swift and decisive to take the necessary measures" to prevent the crimes. Though most of the cases date back decades, the majority have come to light over the past year.

Benedict said that abusive priests suffered from an illness that mere "goodwill" could not cure and that they must never have access to children. The pope told reporters that the victims were now the church's top priority.

Benedict's visit is suffused with controversy and historic verve, Britain being the nation that broke with the Vatican in the 16th century over Henry VIII's divorce. 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 to the stately Palace of Holyroodhouse, the official Scottish residence of the Royal Family, to meet the queen, who also holds the title of "supreme governor" of the Church of England. In back-to-back speeches, the queen and Benedict emphasized Christian unity, with the pope calling Britain a "mighty force for good."

But before landing, he had noted to reporters that this largely secular nation had a "great history of anti-Catholicism," though also one of "tolerance." In his comments before the queen, he issued a warning about the dangers of a society veering from divine belief.

The queen lauded the Vatican's efforts to aid in quelling the violence in Northern Ireland. Though Benedict has caused a stir by seeking to woo Anglicans disenchanted with that church's increasingly liberal policies on gay and female clerics, she welcomed the pontiff's trip as one aimed at shoring up that damaged relationship.

"I'm pleased that your visit will deepen the relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England,'' she said.

The pontiff celebrated an open-air Mass drawing tens of thousands of faithful, though the turnout was lower than organizers had hoped. In London on Friday, Benedict will address Parliament. On Saturday, he will meet Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nicholas Clegg, an avowed atheist.

Benedict will also pray with the archbishop of Canterbury, the symbolic head of the Anglican Communion, at Westminster Abbey on Friday. On Sunday, he travels to Birmingham to beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman, a reconciliator of the Anglican and Catholic faiths, who is on his way to becoming the first British saint in 40 years.

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