Pope Benedict XVI arrives on visit to Britain

Thursday, September 16, 2010

LONDON - Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Britain Thursday on an historic and highly controversial state visit that is expected to promote church unity while also being punctuated by protest and debate.

The scandal over child sex abuse in the Roman Catholic church and controversial remarks about Britain by a papal adviser have added to the tension surrounding the four-day visit.

Before he touched down in Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, Thursday, the pope made one of his strongest admissions to date that the Catholic church had erred in its handling of the abuse scandal, Italian news media said.

Speaking to reporters on board the aircraft that took him to Britain, Pope Benedict said the revelations had for him come as “shock, a source of great sadness”.

“It is difficult to understand how such perversion was possible within the priestly ministry,” he said.

The church authority had not been “sufficiently vigilant and decisive in taking the necessary measures”, the pope said about the scandal, which has rocked the church in a number of European countries and the US.

Protest groups and victims in Britain have urged the pope to “make amends” to the sex abuse victims and to go “beyond an apology”.

The 83-year-old German-born pontiff is the first leader of the Roman Catholic church to pay on official - as opposed to pastoral - visit to Britain since Henry VIII broke with Rome in 1534.

His predecessor, Pope John Paul II, made a pastoral visit to Britain in 1982.

In Edinburgh, the pope was officially received at Hollyrood House Palace by Queen Elizabeth II, who is both British head of state and the titular head of the worldwide Anglican Church.

Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, welcomed the pope at Edinburgh airport, along with church leaders and other dignitaries.

On the eve of the visit, one of the pope’s closest advisers, German cardinal Walter Kasper, stirred controversy with remarks in which he compared Britain to a “Third World” country ridden by “an aggressive new atheism”.

The head of the Roman Catholic church in Scotland, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Thursday called on Kasper to apologize for his remarks, made to a German news magazine.

Late Wednesday, the head of Roman Catholics in England and Wales, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, called the remarks “inexplicable”.

Kasper, who was for many years in charge of interfaith relations at the Vatican, was dropped from the pope’s entourage for the visit, the Vatican confirmed. It listed health reasons as the grounds for the decision.

“Britain today is a secularized, pluralistic country,” the 77-year-old cardinal was quoted as telling Germany’s Focus magazine. “When you land at Heathrow airport, you think at times you have landed in a Third World country.”

Asked whether Christians were discriminated against in Britain, he replied: “Yes. Especially in Britain, an aggressive new atheism has spread. If, for example, you wear a cross on British Airways, you are discriminated against.”

Later Thursday, the pope is due to tour the centre of Edinburgh in his Popemobile, before celebrating mass to an expected crowd of 80,000 at a park in Glasgow, Scotland’s second city.

He is due to visit London Friday and Saturday, before ending his stay Sunday with the beatification in Birmingham of Cardinal John Henry Newman, Britain’s most famous Anglican convert to Catholicism.

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