Pope Benedict XVI criticized Catholic Church officials for not acting quickly enough against priests accused of sexually abusing minors, as he arrived in the U.K. for the first papal visit to the country in 28 years.
In some of his strongest criticism yet of the church’s hierarchy, the pope said the “authorities in the church had not been vigilant enough” in taking action against priests accused of abuse. He made the comments, broadcast by the BBC, aboard the plane carrying him to Edinburgh today.
Queen Elizabeth II, 84, welcomed Benedict, 83, at Holyrood Palace in the Scottish capital, where the pontiff spoke of the challenges of a “multicultural society” in the U.K. and “aggressive forms of secularism.” He then set off in his specially designed car through the city center with bagpipers and crowds waving Scottish flags and papal tartan. The pope then traveled 40 miles across to a park in Glasgow for a public Mass.
Almost five centuries since King Henry VIII split from Rome, the pope’s first state visit to the U.K. is being met by protests against the sex-abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church from Ireland to his native Germany.
The blessing of an Anglican convert to Catholicism also drew complaints. The pope’s main business will be to announce the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, a 19th-century Anglican, or Church of England, convert to Catholicism.
The Vatican last October announced an initiative to integrate Anglicans upset over their church’s ordination of female and homosexual bishops and same-sex unions.
“At a time when there are divisions within the church, it’s not helpful for another church to come along and say, ‘We’ll create a place for you,’” Canon David Richardson, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative to the Holy See, said in a telephone interview.
The first papal visit of any kind since John Paul II’s arrival in 1982 comes as fewer Britons attend church. The Anglican flock, first convened during Tudor times in the 16th century, has shrunk the past five years.
Benedict, in his speech in Edinburgh, called on Britain to “maintain its respect for traditional values” and “not obscure the Christian foundation that underpins its freedoms.” He also praised the country’s wartime effort against his native Germany, saying its Nazi-era atrocities were fueled by atheism.
The association of atheism with Nazis “is a terrible libel against those who do not believe in god,” according to a statement by the National Secular Society, which is staging protests. The group also said that the notion that non-religious people seek to impose their views on society is “surreal,” given the Catholic Church’s “narrow” morality that is critical of “gay people and many others.”
The society, founded in 1866, also objects to the estimated 12 million-pound ($18.5 million) cost of the papal visit as the country struggles to emerge from its worst recession since World War II. The Vatican will foot the bill for the religious part of the visit, spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told reporters.
There are about 5 million Catholics in England, according to the church’s website. There are some 25 million baptized Anglicans in England, about half the country’s population, a Church of England spokesman said.
Break From Rome
The Church of England broke from Rome in 1534 after Pope Clement VII refused Henry VIII’s request to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so he could wed Anne Boleyn.
In her speech today, the queen, who holds the title of supreme governor of the Church of England, said the visit will “deepen the mutual respectful understanding” between the two denominations. She also praised the Holy See for “dramatic improvement” in relations between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland as well as efforts on poverty and education.
After Edinburgh, Benedict headed to Glasgow to hold Mass in the park where predecessor John Paul worshiped 28 years ago. U.K. Catholic officials said the crowds for Benedict overall are unlikely to match the turnout for John Paul.
The pontiff may also meet with U.K. victims of clerical sexual abuse, although “these meetings are never confirmed so as not to give them excessive publicity and ensure that they are serene and spiritual,” Lombardi said.
The pope, who has repeatedly apologized for abuse, told reporters on the plane today that he was “shocked” when he learned of the extent of the scandal and found it “hard to grasp” how priests who “promise to be the voice of Christ” could be capable of such crimes, Italian news agency Ansa said.
The criticism of church officials today “is disingenuous,” according to an e-mailed statement by Chicago- based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. “It’s not that bishops haven’t worked hard on abuse. It’s that they’ve worked hard to hide it, not stop it.”
Benedict will give a speech tomorrow at London’s Westminster Hall, where Catholic St. Thomas More was tried and sentenced in 1535 for denying that King Henry VIII was supreme head of the Church of England. There, he will also greet former U.K. premiers including Margaret Thatcher, Catholic convert Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who first invited him to Britain.
“I warmly welcome the Pope,” Cameron told reporters in Brussels after talks with European Union leaders.“We are a very tolerant society and should be a tolerant society and part of that is respecting people of faith and faith-based organizations and what they do.”