Pope Benedict XVI met Saturday with five people who were molested by priests as children and apologized to them, even as abuse survivors and thousands of people opposed to his visit marched in central London in the biggest protest of his five-year papacy.
Benedict met for about 30-40 minutes with the victims at the Vatican’s apostolic nunciature in Wimbledon and prayed with them, according to the Vatican and Bill Kilgallon, chairman of the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission – a church group that organized the encounter.
Benedict “expressed his deep sorrow and shame over what victims and their families had suffered,” according to a Vatican statement.
“He prayed with them and assured them that the Catholic Church is continuing to implement effective measures designed to safeguard young people, and that it is doing all in its power to investigate allegations, to collaborate with civil authorities and to bring to justice clergy and religious (brothers) accused of these egregious crimes,” it said.
The statement was similar to ones issued by the Vatican when Benedict has met previously with victims on foreign trips to the United States, Australia and Malta. This time, Benedict also met with a group of professionals and volunteers who work to safeguard children and young people in church environments and praised their efforts.
“I pray that your generous service will help to reinforce an atmosphere of trust and renewed commitment to the welfare of children, who are such a precious gift from God,” he told them.
Kilgallon said he didn’t know if any of the victims would choose to speak to the media. He told the British Broadcasting Corp. that the victims weren’t angry but wanted to make sure children were protected. “Anger can be very constructive if they work for change,” he said.
The sex abuse scandal has clouded Benedict’s four-day state visit to this deeply secular nation with a centuries-old history of anti-Catholic sentiment. Polls have indicated widespread dissatisfaction in Britain with the way Benedict has handled the crisis, with Catholics nearly as critical of him as the rest of the population.
Anger over the scandal runs high in Britain in part because of the enormous scale of the abuse in neighboring Ireland, where government reports have detailed systematic abuse of children at church-run schools and cover-up by church authorities.
As the pope met with the victims, abuse survivors and demonstrators opposed to the pope’s stance against homosexuality, abortion and using condoms to fight AIDS marched from Hyde Park to Downing Street to protest the pope’s visit, which is costing British taxpayers 12 million pounds ($18.7 million).
They carried banners reading: “Protect Children, not Priests,” “The pope is wrong – put a condom on” and “Pope protects pedophile priests.”
Organizers said they expected 10,000 people, and thousands were seen marching through London. Police declined to give a crowd estimate. Even a crowd of a few thousand would make it the largest protest against Benedict since his election in 2005.
Still, it was peaceful.
Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II, faced a violent protest in Utrecht, the Netherlands in 1985 involving about 1,000 to 1,500 young people. Then, demonstrators chanting “We want to kill the pope” fought pitched battles with police, jammed police radios with a satirical song and sparked two shooting incidents that resulted in 14 arrests and eight injuries.
Saturday’s march was of a different tone entirely. Many wore rainbow-colored clothes or waved gay pride flags. Some in the crowd bounced inflated condoms back and forth across the route. The protest brought together not just people opposed to the church’s handling of abuse but also those opposed to its stance on gays, women’s ordination and a host of other issues.
Richard Erson, a 40-year-old Londoner, said he was there “to protest the hatred of the pope and his church toward homosexuals and to protest the ignorance of abundant child abuse within the church.”
Niamh O’Farrell, 34, from Ireland, said he didn’t agree with what he called “the church’s support of pedophiles.”
“Their policies on condoms can cost lives,” he added.
During a Mass in Westminster Cathedral earlier Saturday, Benedict said he hoped the church’s humiliation and shame over the abuse scandal would help victims heal and help the church purify itself and renew its commitment to educating the young.
His comments, which were in line with his previous statements on the topic, were directed at Britain’s Catholic community in the seat of the English church, a sign that Benedict wanted to speak to the faithful about the humiliation they all felt as Catholics.
“I express my deep sorrow to the innocent victims of these unspeakable crimes, along with my hope that the power of Christ’s grace, his sacrifice of reconciliation, will bring deep healing and peace to their lives,” Benedict said in his homily.
He acknowledged the shame and humiliation all the faithful had suffered as a result of the scandal and said he hoped “this chastisement will contribute to the healing of the victims, the purification of the church and the renewal of her age-old commitment to the education and care of young people.”
Martin Brown, 34, who was in the crowd outside the cathedral, termed it “a good apology.”
“He seemed to really mean it; he was genuinely sorry,” Brown said. “It’s good he mentioned it and it’s good he didn’t dwell on it for too long. He got it just about right.”
Chris Daly, a spokesman for Scottish abuse victims, said the pope’s words helped but that victims want to see action: an acknowledgment from church authorities of their failures and cover-up, and material support to help victims.
“There has to be an element of accountability here, and truth is a big issue here where the church has been complicit in a cover-up of the abuse,” he said. “They haven’t been open. They haven’t been truthful. It’s hardly Christlike to be complicit.”
In Scotland, more than 500 people claiming to be victims of abuse had been represented in a court case but were blocked by a time limit on bringing an action.
On his way to Britain, Benedict acknowledged to reporters that the church had failed to act quickly or decisively enough to stop the abuse and prevent it from recurring. Victims groups have dismissed such comments as hollow, saying they want the church to turn over information about suspected pedophiles in its ranks and take action, not words, to make children safer.
“We don’t need a pope who is sad about crimes. We need a pope who will prevent crimes,” Peter Isely of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said in a statement after the pontiff’s comments Saturday. “And his words prevent nothing.”
Benedict went ahead with a busy day Saturday, his third in Britain, as six men arrested in an alleged terror attempt against him remained in police custody. Police staged a pre-dawn raid Friday on a garbage depot and arrested five street cleaners; a sixth person was arrested later in the day.
Police say they were detained under the Terrorism Act “on suspicion of the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism.”
The Vatican has said the pope was informed of the arrests, was calm, and no changes to his itinerary were planned.
Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi seemed to downplay the seriousness of the threat Saturday, telling reporters that the pope’s entourage was given the impression that the alleged plot was not a “major concern.”
Benedict began his day by meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and opposition leader Harriet Harman. The pope offered his condolences to Cameron following the death of his father, Lombardi said. All three gave the pope gifts, including drawings given by Clegg’s children.
He also visited a home for the elderly and told them that they shouldn’t be afraid to share in Christ’s suffering as they get along in their years.
“I come among you not only as a father, but also as a brother who knows well the joys and the struggles that come with age,” he said.
Later Saturday he was to celebrate an evening prayer service in Hyde Park in preparation for Sunday’s beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, a 19th century convert from Anglicanism whom the pope wants to hold up as a model for the faithful.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)