Pope starts British visit with abuse scandal regrets

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Pope Benedict XVI said Thursday the Catholic Church failed to act quickly enough on paedophile priests, as he launched a historic visit to Britain with some of his strongest words yet on the scandal.

Tens of thousands of people lined the streets of Edinburgh and flocked to a mass in Glasgow to welcome the 83-year-old despite controversies over child abuse and a Vatican aide likening Britain to a "Third World Country."

He also warned against "aggressive secularism" in Britain, where he is making the first ever papal state visit at the invitation of Queen Elizabeth II, the titular head of the Church of England founded when King Henry VIII broke with Rome in 1534.

On the flight to Edinburgh, the pope told journalists that the revelations of child abuse by priests that have rocked the Catholic Church "were a shock to me".

"The authorities in the Church have not been vigilant enough," he said.

The Church "did not act quickly or firmly enough to take the necessary action" to quell the problem, which involved abuse by priests and Catholic teachers in Ireland, the United States and several other countries.

The queen officially welcomed the pope at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, her official residence in Scotland, saying she hoped the visit would "deepen the relationship" between the two Churches.

The run-up to the visit has been clouded by the abuse scandal and fears that turnout would be lower than during John Paul II's unofficial visit here in 1982, but police said 125,000 people turned out in Edinburgh to see him.

After meeting the queen, wrapped in a green and blue tartan shawl, and Benedict were driven through the streets of Edinburgh. Many in the crowd waved Scottish and Vatican flags, as the strains of bagpipes rang out.

Benedict later celebrated a huge open-air mass front of an estimated 70,000 pilgrims in Glasgow's Bellahouston Park in the low sunshine, after a warm-up concert by singing sensation Susan Boyle.

A baby in a pink jacket was passed up to the pope by a member of the crowd, and the pontiff wound down the window of his popemobile to kiss and bless the child, to huge cheers.

University student Olivia Dunn, 18, who was at the mass with her family, said: "There's been so much hype about it. It's something you want to say you went to."

In a homily, Benedict warned young Catholics about the "temptations" of "drugs, money, sex, pornography, alcohol -- the world tells you will bring you happiness, yet these things are destructive and divisive."

Earlier in a speech after meeting the queen, he warned of the dangers of "aggressive secularism" as Britain strives to be a "modern and multicultural society".

Before the visit, one of the pope's top aides sparked controversy by saying an "aggressive neo-atheism has spread" in predominantly Anglican and secular Britain.

Cardinal Walter Kasper told Germany's Focus magazine: "When you land at Heathrow Airport, you sometimes think you might have landed in a Third World country."

The Vatican said the cardinal had dropped out of the entourage accompanying Benedict for health reasons.

Benedict arrived in London late Thursday for a two-day stay which includes meetings with Anglican leaders and Prime Minister David Cameron.

He will Friday hold prayers with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the head of the world's Anglicans, in a symbolic gesture aimed at easing strained ties between Catholics and Anglicans.

Benedict will travel to the central English city of Birmingham Sunday, where he will preside over the beatification of a 19th century cardinal, John Henry Newman.

He is set to face protests from demonstrators angry at the Vatican's handling of the abuse scandal but also at issues such as the 20-million-pound (31-million-dollar, 37-million-euro) cost of the visit.

A network of child abuse survivors lashed out at his comments on the issue.

"The pope's disingenuous comments about the abuse and cover up crisis are hurtful, not helpful," said Joell Casteix of the US-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).

© 2010 AFP

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