EDINBURGH — Pope Benedict XVI said Thursday the Catholic Church had dropped its guard on paedophilia and had failed to deal with the issue quickly enough, as he began an historic state visit to Britain.
The 83-year-old landed at Edinburgh airport before being driven to meet Queen Elizabeth to launch the first state visit by a pope to Britain since King Henry VIII broke with Rome in 1534 and founded the Church of England.
But while tens of thousands of people lined the streets to greet him, the trip has already been clouded by the abuse scandal involving priests and by comments by a top Vatican aide who likened Britain to a “Third World country”.
During the flight to Edinburgh, the pope told journalists on board his plane that the Catholic Church “has not been vigilant enough” on the issue of priests who abused children.
The revelations of child abuse that have shaken the church “were a shock to me”, he said, shortly before landing in Edinburgh, adding that it was “difficult” to understand how such actions could be “possible”.
The pope admitted the church authorities “did not act quickly or firmly enough to take the necessary action” to deal with the problem.
The queen officially welcomed the pope at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, her official residence in Scotland and the former home of Britain’s last Catholic queen.
“I am pleased that your visit will provide an opportunity to deepen the relationship between the Roman Catholic church and the Established Church of England and the Church of Scotland,” she said.
During a speech at the palace, the pope echoed comments from one of his aides about the dangers of “aggressive secularism”.
“Today, the United Kingdom strives to be a modern and multicultural society,” he said.
“In this challenging enterprise, may it always maintain its respect for those traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate.”
After their meeting, Benedict drove through the streets of Edinburgh in his popemobile where he was greeted by 125,000 people, according to police, many waving Scottish and Vatican flags, as a band played the bagpipes.
The pope could be seen wrapped in a green and blue tartan shawl.
A handful of people held placards against the visit, however, including one saying: “Two million Scots are good without God.”
“It’s sad to know that in the current economic climate we’ve had to pay for all that,” said Amelia Black, a 48-year-old Protestant from West Lothian who was among the crowd.
Benedict will hold a mass in Glasgow later Thursday before travelling to London and the central English city of Birmingham, 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 abuse.
“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).
Before the pope’s plane even touched down, the Vatican was forced onto the defensive after one of his closest aides described Britain as an “aggressively” secular “Third World country”.
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.”
“In England in particular, an aggressive neo-atheism has spread,” he added.
Following the remarks, the Vatican said the cardinal had dropped out of the entourage accompanying Benedict for health reasons.
The head of the Catholic Church in Scotland, Keith O’Brien, said Kasper should apologise.