Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday began a four-day tour of Britain, the first-ever state visit by a pontiff to this island nation, by offering his sharpest critique yet of official lapses that allowed thousands of children to be sexually abused by clerics in a scandal that has rocked Catholic churches across Europe.
Speaking to reporters on the plane from Rome to Edinburgh, the first stop on his British tour, Benedict expressed “sadness” that “the authority of the church was not sufficiently vigilant and not sufficiently swift and decisive to take the necessary measures” to prevent the crimes. Though most of the cases date back decades, the majority have come to light over the past year.
Benedict said that abusive priests suffered from an illness that mere “goodwill” cannot cure and that they must never have access to children. The pope told reporters that the victims were now the church's top priority.
Benedict’s visit is suffused with controversy and historic verve, Britain being the nation that broke with the Vatican in the 16th century over Henry VIII’s divorce.
Amid planned protests and a blistering gaffe by a top Vatican aide, official Britain rolled out the red carpet, with the Duke of Edinburgh, the husband of Queen Elizabeth II, breaking tradition by deferring to the pope and greeting him upon arrival.
Benedict was later met the queen, who also holds the title of “supreme governor” of the Church of England.
But before landing, he had noted to reporters that this largely secular nation had a “great history of anti-Catholicism,” though also one of “tolerance.” In his comments, he issued a warning about the dangers of a society veering from divine belief.
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