Popes UK Visit Stirs Animosities Old and New

By Lauren Frayer
AOL News
September 15, 2010

LEEDS, England (Sept. 15) -- England has been a thorn in the side of the Vatican since the days of Henry VIII. And Thursday's planned papal visit -- the first-ever state trip to Britain by any pontiff in history -- isn't likely to be any different.

When Pope Benedict XVI arrives here for a four-day stay, he's likely to find a more secular, belligerent Britain than ever before -- a country just as ready to thumb its nose at papal authority as it was in the 16th century. Throngs of protesters are expected to greet him in Scotland, London and Birmingham, angry about the price tag for his trip, the church's sex abuse scandal and its increasingly isolated stances on contraception, homosexuality and abortion.

Pope Benedict XVI waves at the end of a service in Carpineto Romano, Italy, on Sept. 5. He may receive a more ambivalent welcome during his four-day visit to the United Kingdom, which begins Thursday.

Pope John Paul II visited England and Wales in 1982 on a so-called pastoral visit, which essentially means the Vatican paid his way. That was a religious mission, funded by the Catholic Church.

This time, Benedict is coming to Britain supposedly on state business, as head of the independent country of Vatican City -- meaning the British taxpayer will foot part of the bill for his security and hotels, as it does when President Barack Obama or any other head of state comes to town. He's expected to rack up a tab of up to $30 million -- a figure Britons aren't stomaching too well amid the worst economic recession since World War II.

"The British government doesn't fund visits by the grand mufti of Mecca or the chief rabbi of Jerusalem. Why should the pope get privileged financial support?" human rights activist Peter Tatchell, one of the organizers of the Protest the Pope campaign, told a news conference Tuesday in London. More than 2,500 supporters have joined a Facebook group for the drive.

Some 77 percent of people surveyed by The Guardian said British taxpayers shouldn't have to contribute to the cost of the pope's trip, and 79 percent said they have "no personal interest" in the visit. "Pope Nope" T-shirts are selling fast online.

The idea that the pope is a head of state, with full diplomatic immunity and benefits, has irked a vocal cadre of English atheists inspired by the authors Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who are trying to get Benedict's diplomatic status overturned -- potentially making him vulnerable to criminal charges for priestly abuse that happened on his watch.

Because Vatican City isn't recognized as a state by the United Nations, its head might not necessarily be entitled to diplomatic immunity, Dawkins told The Sunday Times earlier this year. Theoretically, Interpol could put out an arrest warrant for the pope.

"This man is not above or outside the law. The institutionalized concealment of child rape is a crime under any law and demands not private ceremonies of repentance or church-funded payoffs, but justice and punishment," Hitchens told the same paper.

But a papal arrest isn't likely to happen on this trip, said Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society and one of the organizers of this week's demonstrations. The pope's diplomatic immunity depends on how Britain, not the U.N., views Vatican City -- as a sovereign state, at least for now.

"We have now discovered that there is no real prospect of a prosecution being made against the pope. Until the status of the Vatican is really sorted out, whether it's a state or not, the pope is safe from any kind of legal challenge," Sanderson told told The Daily Telegraph.

Advocates for church abuse victims, who are gathering for protests this weekend in London, say the pope's legal status doesn't matter much to them, as long as the church stops its alleged cover-up of crimes by pedophile priests.

"It's not our issue whether he's the head of a religion or head of state, but he should be accountable for what he's done," said Barbara Dorris, outreach director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. "Anybody who commits a crime should be subject to the laws of that country. If the pope has committed crimes, he should be held accountable."

Dorris spoke to AOL News by telephone from Dublin, where she was meeting with abuse survivors. She heads to London on Friday to join the chorus of papal dissenters.

Meanwhile, all this dissonance over the pope's upcoming visit has forced British Catholics to confront uncomfortable realities about their church and faith.

"You can't change what's happened in the past. The pope may or may not be responsible [for covering up sex abuse], but let's concentrate on the future, not the past," Lisa Hadley, a 43-year-old Catholic from Yorkshire, told AOL News. "The whole abuse scandal is horrendous but I don't let it affect my faith -- I need it more than ever now."

Hadley, whose 12-year-old daughter is one of 2,000 students chosen to sing at the pope's Birmingham mass on Sunday, said she feels increasingly alone as Britain grows more secular. "I talk about my faith. I tell people we go to church every Sunday. I know it's rare in England, certainly among my neighbors and friends," she said.

A recent survey by the U.K.'s National Centre for Social Research revealed that only 17 percent of Britons believe firmly that God exists, and only 6 percent said they faithfully follow religious leaders when it comes to matters of right and wrong.

Those are sobering numbers for Benedict, a German whose appointment in 2005 was seen by some as a last-ditch effort by the church to re-invigorate Catholicism in an increasingly secular Europe.

Last year, Benedict launched what some saw as a controversial recruitment drive in Britain by inviting dissident clergy from the Church of England to defect to Catholicism. His offer was aimed at conservative Anglicans offended by their church's move toward ordination of gay bishops and women, which has divided the Anglican Communion.

Benedict's initiative was seen both as a gesture toward unity between the two churches, and as an affront to Anglican sovereignty. He risks the same reaction on Sunday, when he beatifies Cardinal John Henry Newman, a 19th-century Anglican who defected to the Catholic Church. The beatification of Newman is the main event of the pope's U.K. trip, putting a figure who betrayed the Church of England one step closer to sainthood.

On Friday, Benedict will also visit Westminster Hall, a medieval chamber inside Britain's parliament where Thomas More, a Catholic aide to King Henry VIII, was convicted of treason and beheaded in 1535. Catholics consider More a martyr and saint for refusing to condone Henry's marriage annulment -- the event that sparked the English Reformation.

Outside a Catholic Church in Yorkshire, Hadley said she believes the pope's visit will help heal divisions that split England's faithful nearly 500 years ago.

"We're all Christians whether we're Catholic or follow the Church of England, and many of us increasingly don't even believe at all," she said. "I hope there aren't protests but I guess people are entitled to their opinions."


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