Pope 'understands' those leaving Church over abuse scandals
Pope Benedict XVI expressed understanding Thursday for those who had turned their backs on the Catholic Church after the recent sex abuse scandals, on his first state visit to his German homeland.
At the start of a four-day trip, the pontiff also took a conciliatory tone with protesters planning to rally in the free-wheeling, increasingly secular capital and exchanged views with Chancellor Angela Merkel on the euro crisis.
"I can understand that in the face of such reports, people, especially those close to victims, would say 'this isn't my Church anymore'," the pope, 84, told reporters on his plane from Rome in reference to widespread abuse by priests.
But he asked for patience as the Church grapples with enduring outrage over the scandals that has threatened to cloud his visit to Germany, where his election six years ago had met with an outpouring of joy.
The Church "is a net of the Lord which catches both good fish and bad," he said ahead of his arrival, which was met with a 21-gun salute and children bearing flowers under glorious autumn sunshine.
Organisers said at least 20,000 opponents of the pope, including abuse survivors, gays, feminists and atheists, would gather behind police barricades in Berlin later Thursday.
Benedict said demonstrations were "normal in a free society marked by strong secularism."
"One can't object" to such protests as long as they are "civil", he added. "I respect those who speak out."
Critics say the pope is out of touch with modern life with his rigorous dogma on artificial contraception, homosexuality and the role of women.
Benedict's papacy has also been marred by the revelations last year of rampant abuse by priests over several decades, which helped drive more than 181,000 from the German Church -- 57,000 more than in 2009.
The Vatican has indicated it is likely the pontiff will meet with victims, as he has on previous trips.
However the head of a prominent abuse victims' association, Matthias Katsch of Eckiger Tisch, said the Church must do more to rebuild the trust of those who suffered at the hands of its clergy.
"I personally did not leave the Church because I am convinced that change is possible," the 48-year-old, who says he was molested while attending an elite Catholic school in Berlin, told AFP.
"But if you have lost hope then you must leave to demonstrate to the Church that it is on the wrong path."
The pope said there were various factors driving people from the Church.
"We are witnessing a growing indifference to religion in society, which considers the issue of truth as something of an obstacle in its decision-making, and instead gives priority to utilitarian considerations," he said after meeting President Christian Wulff, himself a remarried Catholic.
In a brief statement after talks with the pope, the Lutheran Merkel said they had spoken about the current financial market turmoil and "about the fact that politicians need the power to lead for the people rather than be led, which is a very, very difficult task in the current period of globalisation."
The leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics has a gruelling schedule, with 18 sermons and speeches during his 21st trip abroad.
It is his third to Germany following World Youth Day in Cologne in 2005 and a private visit to his native Bavaria in 2006.
Benedict will make his first-ever speech to a national parliament Thursday before addressing a capacity crowd of 70,000 at the historic Olympic Stadium.
Further stops include Erfurt in former communist East Germany and predominantly Catholic Freiburg in the southwest.
But as if to underline the ambivalence in his native country, dozens of leftist deputies vowed to boycott the speech to parliament, while throngs of demonstrators rally a few blocks away behind police barricades.
"It will do the pope good to come to Berlin and sense what reality is in the year 2011," said the co-leader of the opposition Greens, Claudia Roth, amid accusations the address will undermine the separation of Church and state.
Polls show an overwhelming majority of Germans are largely indifferent to "their" pope's visit.
Germany's Christians are split down the middle between Catholics and Lutherans, each with about one-third of the population in the country that was the cradle of the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago.
© 2011 AFP