Pope Benedict XVI extends hand to a wary Britain

Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Britain today for the first papal trip there since 1982. The visit is clouded by recent sex-abuse scandals and is being met with a distinct lack of reverence.

Andrew Milligan/AP Photo/Pool
Pope Benedict XVI, center right, is met by Prince Phillip as he arrives in Scotland Thursday to begin the first papal state visit to Britain.

Pope Benedict XVI today made one of his frankest admissions of church failings in priestly sex abuse of children, telling reporters en route to a controversial papal visit to Britain that the Roman Catholic Church was not “sufficiently vigilant” and “not sufficiently swift and decisive.”

The pope arrived in Edinburgh, Scotland, today and visited Queen Elizabeth to kick off the first papal visit to Britain since 1982. The trip comes a year after Pope Benedict offered quick Catholic conversions to members of the Church of England who were “disillusioned” with their faith. But the visit is being discussed in Britain more in the context of recent priestly child-abuse scandals.

Secular, diverse, and worldly Britain is the kind of modern society that the pope has wanted to reach with his message urging deeper religious tradition and faith. In his first speech this morning, the pontiff extended the “hand of friendship” to British people.

But despite an itinerary of bagpiper parades and meetings with current and former heads of state, the British aren’t swooning. In fact, there’s a distinct lack of reverence in the air. A Times of London poll this week shows favorable opinion for the pope's visit in Britain at only 14 percent.

Talk about the pope’s visit instead centers on the $18 million price tag for papal security at a time of severe budget cuts. Priestly child-abuse issues have vied in the media with statements by celebrities and intellectuals opposing Vatican teachings on abortion and gay rights that are considered out of step with mainstream Britain. London bus banners read: “Pope Benedict, Ordain Women Now!”

Tickets to hear the pope (as much as $40) have not sold well. While 100,000 were expected to turn out in Glasgow to see the pope, 65,000 are now anticipated. And there is grumbling about the German-born pope’s move last year to advocate the conversion of conservative Anglicans to Catholicism (clergy being told they can stay married) ­that brought protest from Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.

Even comedian-cum-intellectual Stephen Fry, known for his character as the butler “Jeeves,” signed a protest letter yesterday with 50 others: “We reject the masquerading of the Holy See as a state and the pope as a head of state as merely a convenient fiction to amplify the international influence of the Vatican."

In answers to pre-approved questions from Italian journalists on the way to Scotland, the pope said the “revelations” of a child-abuse scandal among priests in a dozen countries were “a shock to me, a great sadness.” He said the first priority was the victims: “What can we do to help them to overcome the trauma, to refind their lives?”

Sir Stephen Wall, former British Vatican official who has become a church critic, said this week that England’s warm welcome for Pope John Paul II in 1982 was due partly to his persona as a “charismatic superstar,” a hope at the time for Catholic-Anglican reconciliation, and no child-abuse scandal.

But today’s British “resentment is magnified,” Sir Stephen said, “because, for the most part, the present pope is someone whose views are authoritarian and outmoded and who claims a moral authority not borne out by the track record of his church.”

However, says Nick Spenser of the London-based based religion think tank Theos, while the British may not agree with the church on family or sexual teachings, many agree with its social teachings related to the environment, politics, and economics.

Notably, Pope Benedict’s visit is a state one. Along with meeting the queen, tomorrow he visits Prime Minister David Cameron. Over four days he will hold mass at Westminster Cathedral, offer words at two large outdoor events, and beatify 19th century British cardinal John Henry Newman, an educator who converted from the Anglican to the Catholic faith and is credited with restoring credibility to the Catholic Church in England.

The state visit protocol may be fortuitous since it negates efforts by activists – from author and religion critic Christopher Hitchens to human rights activist Geoffrey Robertson to Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society – attempting to “arrest” the pope on human rights charges alleging a papal cover up of child abuse.

A majority of British Catholics, estimated at 9 percent of the country, said in a recent BBC poll that their faith is not “generally valued” in British society. About 70 percent say the pope’s visit will help the British Catholic Church, even if half also say their faith has been shaken by the child sex scandal. Two-thirds said women should have more status and authority in the Catholic Church.

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