Priest Controversy Adds to Doubts on Pope's British Visit

By Paola Totaro
Sydney Morning Herald
September 16, 2010

LONDON: Pope Benedict is facing an uphill battle to win over Britons, with new controversy on clerical abuse emerging on the eve of his historic visit.

Preparations for the trip, the first by a pontiff since 1982, have sparked an often hostile debate about the cost to taxpayers at a time of national austerity combined with a deep undermining of public confidence in the way the church has dealt with paedophile priests.

A report by Channel 4 television on Tuesday revealed that more than half of the Catholic clergy who were jailed for child abuse in England and Wales following a report in 2001 remain in the priesthood. Several continue to receive financial support, and guidelines on discipline and punishment agreed to by the church nearly 10 years ago have allegedly been relaxed.

The news program examined the Catholic Church's response to the Nolan Report, published in the wake of damning disclosures on clerical sexual abuse and subsequent cover-ups, and found that a central recommendation - the defrocking of priests sentenced to a year or more in jail - has not been followed. At least 14 of the 22 priests who served a year or more in prison appear in the latest church yearbook.

The church says that, of the 14, six applications for dismissal are being processed while another three were rejected by Rome or not pursued because of ill health.

Recent opinion polls suggest a growing suspicion and disappointment among Catholics over the church's response to many other critical social issues.

A BBC poll of British Catholics (who are fewer than 10 per cent of the population) found almost half wanted the Vatican to drop the celibacy requirement for priests.

A Populus poll conducted for The Times this week provided an insight into general British views of the Catholic Church. Two-thirds of respondents were unhappy with the Pope's state visit, and an overwhelming majority of those polled believe the church to be judgmental and intolerant in its outlook.

Eighty-three per cent felt the church had been ''dishonest'' about the abuse of children. Women are particularly unhappy about the cost of the visit, estimated at ?22 million ($36 million), not including the cost of policing and security.

The four-day visit to Scotland and England comes five weeks before the worst of public sector expenditure cuts are outlined to the nation. Significantly, 57 per cent of those polled said they did not feel strongly about the visit but did object to the taxpayer funding it.

British papers have reported that ticket sales for papal events are poor and thousands of seats for Masses and other public functions remain unsold. Even the main event, the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman at Cofton Park, Birmingham, has not met expectations, perhaps in part because entry costs ?25.

The afternoon Mass in Glasgow today is priced at ?20 - and Scottish papers were predicting 65,000 takers, a third fewer than expected - while an evening prayer vigil in Hyde Park costs ?5. This will buy transport and a ''Pope pack'', including a CD and information booklet.

The visit of John Paul II in 1982 was a huge success. The charismatic and popular pontiff not only attracted big numbers, but security was not an issue. For this visit, tickets must be obtained through Catholic parishes and there are strict identification requirements.


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