Pope Confronts Criticism on Sex Abuse Scandal

By Philip Reeves
September 16, 2010

[with audio]

On a flight to Scotland on Thursday to meet with Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, Pope Benedict XVI said the Catholic Church did not act quickly enough as the clergy sex abuse scandal widened.



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Catholics in Britain turned out in large numbers today to welcome Pope Benedict XVI. He began his four-day visit in Scotland before moving south to England. The visit generated a lot of controversy even before the Pope set foot on British soil.

And as NPR's Philip Reeves reports, Benedict was quick to address his critics.

PHILIP REEVES: The Pope is on a difficult mission. He's visiting Britain at the height of a scandal over child sex abuse that's shaking his church to the core and undermining public trust in the Vatican. Before his plane touched down, the Pope tried to repair some of the damage.

POPE BENEDICT XVI (The Vatican): (Speaking Italian)

REEVES: Speaking in Italian to reporters during the flight, Pope Benedict admitted the church had been slow to respond.

POPE BENEDICT XVI: (Speaking Italian)

REEVES: He said he was shocked and saddened by the abuse committed by Catholic clerics, calling it a perversion.

The church authorities, he said, were not sufficiently vigilant, quick or decisive in tackling the issue. And the church's priority was now to help the victims of abuse. Victims responded angrily to the pope's remarks. One group, called the Survivors Network of those abused by priests, said the church did in fact act quickly to cover up the scandal.

(Soundbite of guards)

Unidentified Man: Royals (unintelligible) present arms.

REEVES: A ceremonial guard of honor greeted the 83-year-old Pope when he eventually stepped out of his plane at Edinburgh Airport. This is a state visit. Waiting formally to receive him in her palace nearby, with helicopters hovering overhead was Queen Elizabeth. She's head of the English church that split from Rome some 500 years ago. There are still tensions between the two churches but these weren't mentioned.

Queen ELIZABETH II (United Kingdom): Your Holiness, I am delighted to welcome you to the United Kingdom, and particularly to Scotland, on your first visit as Pope.

REEVES: The staunchly conservative Pope Benedict spoke of the threat to tradition and culture in Britain from what he called aggressive secularism.

Pope BENEDICT XVI: Let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society.

REEVES: Just how much Britain has become secular is a matter of some debate in this country.

Professor DAVID BOSE (Demography Expert): Religion is still significant to perhaps as much as a quarter of the population.

REEVES: Professor David Bose(ph) is an expert in demography.

Prof. BOSE: That's not to say that all of those actually practice, but they would say that religion matters to them. Another quarter would be pretty overtly secular.

REEVES: Bose says that leaves about half the population sitting on the fence. These numbers worry the Catholic Church.

On the eve of the Pope's visit, one of his closest advisers complained of a new and aggressive atheism pervading Britain. No such aggression was evidenced as the Pope moved through the streets of Edinburgh today.

(Soundbite of cheering)

(Soundbite of bagpipes)

REEVES: Unless you count the sound of bagpipers blasting away in his honor. People lined the streets and waved politely at his pope-mobile. At first the crowds looked thin, but they grew in number and in decibels.

(Soundbite of singing)

REEVES: At an outdoor mass in the nearby city of Glasgow, tens of thousands turned out to cheer and sing and to pray, in a show of rousing support for their troubled church and its leader.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, London.


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