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Amid Church Crisis, Pope Begins 4-Day U.K. Visit


Pope Benedict XVI has arrived in Britain. But even before his plane touched down, the pope addressed criticism over the church's response to child abuse scandals, saying it had not been decisive or quick enough. This is only the second time a pope has visited Britain. It is the first state visit. And as NPR's Philip Reeves reports from London, not everyone welcomes the pontiff.

PHILIP REEVES: It's 1982.�Pope John Paul II is making the first ever papal visit to Britain.�

(Soundbite of crowd chanting)

REEVES: Britain's Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, has just gone to war with Argentina, a Catholic country, over the Falkland�Islands, or Las Malvinas.

That's one of many issues straining relations between Britain and the Vatican. Yet a multitude of Britons turn out to greet John Paul.�They cheer almost everything he says.�

Pope JOHN PAUL II: John Paul means, Italian, Giovanni Paolo.

(Soundbite of applause)

REEVES: The visit to Britain by John Paul's successor - Benedict - is very different.�The British saw John Paul as a charismatic Cold War warrior battling against the Soviets, who dominated his home country, Poland.

In Benedict, they see a man overwhelmed by a terrible crisis - the widespread abuse of children by Catholic clergymen.�His opponents have been getting ready.�

Ms. NAOMI PHILLIPS (British Humanist Association): Well, we've got a number of placards here. All double-sided and all with different slogans on which we prepared, and they say different things. Some of them are slightly decorated as well.

REEVES: Naomi Phillips is from the British Humanist Association, one of a group of organizations protesting the pope's visit.

Ms PHILLIPS: And over here we've got placards drawing attention particularly to the issue of condoms and pedophiles. It's not something you'd normally find in our basement. And of course over here we've got one which is: The Pope Protects Pedophile Priests.

REEVES: The pope's visit has for weeks been the subject of a heated debate on radio phone-ins and elsewhere in Britain.

(Soundbite of radio program)

Unidentified Man #1: ...because I am speaking as a victim here.

Unidentified Man #2: The age of consent was changed in 1929, by the way...

REEVES: The child abuse scandal has badly shaken many of the six million Catholics here. The church already had problems. It's struggling to fill the pews, despite the arrival of half a million Catholic Polish immigrants. There's speculation Benedict will meet some child abuse victims during this visit. Church leaders have been at pains to persuade an outraged world that the Vatican takes the issue very seriously and is contrite.

Archbishop VINCENT NICHOLS (Archbishop of Westminster): The church has made a mess of its response to incidences of child abuse.

REEVES: That's the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales.

Archbishop NICHOLS: And there is nothing that can be said that excuses the crimes committed by members of the clergy against children, because the damage that is done strikes right at the core of a person, in their capacity to trust another, in their capacity to experience love of another.

REEVES: The pope's critics are largely unmoved. Among the most vocal is Peter Tatchell, a human rights campaigner.

Mr. PETER TATCHELL (Human Rights Fund): It's very, very well-known that he says that no woman on this planet is fit to be a priest. It's very well-known that he says that a husband with HIV must not use a condom to protect his wife against infection. Its well-known that the pope opposes gay equality and says that gay people possess a tendency towards evil. You know, these are shocking, shocking, extreme views.

REEVES: The unusual intensity of some of the attacks on the pope ahead of this visit has upset some observers. They point out that - though staunchly conservative - Benedict can't be blamed for failing to overturn centuries of Catholic dogma.

Dr. William Oddie, a leading writer on English Catholicism, believes these attacks prove that prejudice against Catholics still exists in Britain, five centuries after King Henry VIII split from Rome.

Dr. WILLIAM ODDIE (Former Editor, The Catholic Herald): You've got to understand that this is a fundamentally anti-Catholic country. Our self-definition, English patriotism, defines itself by historical events like the Spanish Inquisition.

REEVES: These days, though, Britain is an overwhelmingly secular country. Three quarters of the population have little or no interest in religion. Many here seem indifferent to the pope's visit. As the Pope-mobile and the cameras start rolling, this will probably change.

Andrew Copson, of the British Humanist Association, admits the protestors may well be eclipsed.

Mr. ANDREW COPSON (British Humanist Association): I do have some concerns, of course, that when, you know, the chariot sweeps into town, were not going to be able to compete with a man who sits on a golden chair, and is surrounded with all the bling of modern-day Catholicism.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.