EDINBURGH, Scotland | Pope Benedict XVI began a controversial visit to the United Kingdom on Thursday by acknowledging the Catholic Church had not acted decisively or quickly enough against priests who molested children. He said the church’s top priority now was to help victims of abuse to heal.
The pope’s comments to reporters traveling with him from Rome marked his most thorough admission to date of church failures to stop pedophile priests, but they again failed to satisfy victims’ groups. The issue has reignited with recent revelations of hundreds of victims in Belgium, including at least 13 of whom committed suicide.
Benedict’s four-day state visit has been overshadowed by disgust over the abuse scandal and indifference in highly secular Britain, where Catholics are a minority, at 10 percent, and endured centuries of bloody persecution until the early 1800s.
The pope’s first meeting was with Queen Elizabeth II, both head of state and head of the Church of England, at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh.
Benedict was warmly welcomed by the queen, who wore a blue-gray knee-length coat and matching hat and gloves, as tartan-wearing bagpipers marched and thousands of people watched under blustery, cloud-streaked blue skies. The pontiff himself donned a green tartan scarf as he rode through Edinburgh in the Popemobile.
The queen told Benedict that his visit reminded all Britons of their common Christian heritage and said she hoped relations between the Anglican Church and the Catholic Church would be deepened as a result.
She also praised the Catholic Church’s “special contribution” to helping the poorest and most vulnerable people around the world.
The pope, too, recalled the shared Christian heritage of Catholics and Anglicans and said he wanted to extend a “hand of friendship” to the British people during his trip.
The German-born Benedict’s visit also came as the U.K. marks the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Benedict recalled how Britain fought the “Nazi tyranny” during World War II, “that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live.”
The trip is the first state visit by a pope to the U.K., and his meeting with the queen is symbolically significant because of the historic divide between the officially Protestant nation and the Catholic Church.
The queen is head of the Church of England, which split acrimoniously from Rome in the 16th century, a division followed by centuries in which Catholics were fined, discriminated against and killed for their faith in Britain. The visit coincides with the 450th anniversary of the Reformation in Scotland.
The last papal visit to Britain was by John Paul II in 1982. Benedict’s trip is a state visit because he was invited by the monarch.
The British media has been hostile to the pope’s visit, noting its $18.7 million security cost to British taxpayers at a time of austerity measures and job losses. Protests are planned and “Pope Nope” T-shirts have been spotted around London.
There also remains strong opposition in the U.K. to Benedict’s hard line against homosexuality, abortion and using condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS.
Yet a crowd of about 125,000 in Edinburgh welcomed him warmly, with the cheers on Princes Street heard from a mile away and well-wishers toting the Holy See’s yellow and white flag.
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