|In Britain, Pope Criticizes Response to Abuse Crisis
New York Times
September 18, 2010
GLASGOW — Pope Benedict XVI arrived Thursday in Scotland, offering his strongest criticism yet of the Roman Catholic Church's handling of the sexual abuse crisis. He said that church leaders had not been "sufficiently vigilant" or "sufficiently swift and decisive" in cracking down on abusers.
While Benedict was received graciously by Queen Elizabeth II in Edinburgh and thousands turned out for an open-air Mass in Glasgow, the visit was taking place under the dark shadow of the sexual abuse scandals, which have shaken even the faithful in nearby Ireland, in his native Germany and elsewhere in Europe.
Protests were planned by atheists and gay and human rights activists incensed by the pope's handling of the scandals and by others opposed to the church's stance on social issues. Centuries after the Church of England split from Rome, some Anglicans are wary of the Vatican's recent efforts to draw traditionalists to Roman Catholicism. That the occasion for the visit is the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, England's most famous Catholic convert, has only added to their suspicions.
Ahead of the pope's four-day visit, one of Britain's most prominent Catholic leaders spoke about the wounds left by the church's failures in the abuse cases.
"The church has made a mess of its response to incidences of child abuse," said Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales. "There is nothing to be said to excuse the crimes committed by members of the clergy against children. The damage that is done strikes at the core of the person: in the capacity to trust another, in their capacity to love another and — especially in the context of the church — in their capacity to believe in God."
Perhaps mindful of such criticism, Benedict told reporters on his flight from Rome that the church's "first interest is the victims" of abuse, and that the church needed to ask, "How can we repair, what can we do to help them to overcome the trauma, to refind their lives?"
Responding in Italian to reporters' questions submitted in advance and relayed to him by Vatican officials, the pope's words marked an evolution in the Vatican's response. In the heat of the crisis last spring, top Vatican officials at first blamed the news media for stirring it up.
Critics quickly pounced on the statement, calling it evasive and out of touch. In a statement, the United States-based group Bishopaccountability.org, which tracks abuse cases, said the pontiff's words "ring hollow," adding that he had said similar things for years with little action.
"In researching this crisis for seven years, we have not found one documented instance before 2002 of a top church official contacting civil authorities to report an allegation of sexual abuse," the group said.
Benedict's visit to Britain comes as part of his sustained effort to counter a perceived loss of religious belief in Europe and to urge a new struggle against secularism.
Benedict's is the first state visit to Britain by a pope in which he is meeting the queen and political establishment as a fellow head of state. In 1982, John Paul II paid a pastoral visit to Britain, but did not meet Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and was received by the queen privately.
The pope's first appointment on Thursday was with Elizabeth and Prince Philip at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, a medieval castle in Edinburgh that is the queen's official residence in Scotland and a place that figures large in the history of the schisms within Christianity that marked Britain's evolution as a nation.
It was at Holyroodhouse that Mary Queen of Scots lived during her brief reign as the Catholic queen of Scotland, only to be executed in 1587 by Henry VIII's daughter Queen Elizabeth I of England. Henry had broken with Rome earlier in the 16th century, provoking centuries of anti-Catholic passions that linger still in parts of Britain.
Benedict said he was eager to visit a society often critical of the church. "Naturally, Great Britain has had a history of anti-Catholicism as we all know, but also a history of great tolerance," he told reporters.
In Scotland, crowds were not as tumultuous as those that had greeted John Paul — British news reports said many tickets for papal events during Benedict's visit remained unclaimed — but the mood for the pope's arrival was upbeat.
People lined the streets in Edinburgh as the papal motorcade passed, many of them waving the Scottish flag and cheering. Inside his vehicle, with a blue-and-green Scottish tartan scarf draped over his white papal robes, the pope smiled broadly as he made the sign of the cross.
Benedict used his visit with the queen — the formal head of the Church of England, a church whose relationship with Roman Catholicism remains uneasy — to evoke what he depicted as Britain's drift from Christianity, saying the country should "not obscure the Christian foundation that underpins its freedoms."
"Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi regime that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live," the pope said in English, speaking as Britons mark the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, a turning point of World War II.
He also cited the "Nazi tyranny" as an example of "the sobering lessons of atheist extremism in the 20th century," prompting an angry response from the British Humanist Association, one of the country's leading atheist organizations. "The notion that it was the atheism of the Nazis that led to their extremist and hateful views, or that it somehow fuels intolerance in Britain today, is a terrible libel against those who do not believe in God," the group said in a statement.
Last year, the Vatican upset many Anglicans when it announced a fast-track conversion to Catholicism aimed at Anglican traditionalists uncomfortable with that church's acceptance of female priests and openly gay bishops. (So far, it seems, few Anglicans have accepted the offer.)
On Friday, Benedict is expected to meet with the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and the two are to participate in a rare ecumenical service in Westminster Abbey, where the pope is expected to deliver the central speech of his visit.
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