Pope meets with victims, tells UK he's sorry as thousands protest
Pope Benedict XVI apologized Saturday to five people who were molested by priests as children in his latest effort to defuse the sex-abuse crisis shaking his church, as thousands of people angered at the Vatican's response marched in central London in the biggest protest of his five-year papacy.
The Associated Press
LONDON — Pope Benedict XVI apologized Saturday to five people who were molested by priests as children in his latest effort to defuse the sex-abuse crisis shaking his church, as thousands of people angered at the Vatican's response marched in central London in the biggest protest of his five-year papacy.
Benedict met for about 35 minutes with the victims — four women and a man from Scotland, England and Wales — at the Vatican's ambassador's residence in Wimbledon and he expressed "his deep sorrow and shame over what the victims and their families suffered," according to a Vatican statement.
Across town, abuse victims and demonstrators opposed to the pope's stance against homosexuality, abortion and using condoms to fight AIDS marched peacefully from Hyde Park to Downing Street, the major protest of Benedict's four-day state visit to Britain.
They carried banners reading: "The pope is wrong — put a condom on" and "Pope protects pedophile priests."
Organizers said nearly 20,000 people — twice the number expected — took part. Scotland Yard took the unusual step of declining to put a figure on the crowd, saying it lacked manpower to make such an estimate.
Later Saturday, though, an estimated 80,000 people massed in Hyde Park cheering the pope as he celebrated an evening vigil.
The Vatican statement was similar to ones it issued after Benedict met with abuse victims in the past two years while visiting the United States, Australia and Malta. But continued revelations of abuse — the latest in Belgium — have failed to placate critics demanding the pope and other Vatican officials take personal responsibility and crack down on bishops who covered up abuses by their clerics.
For the first time, Benedict also met with a group of professionals and volunteers who work to safeguard children and young people in church environments, Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said.
Bill Kilgallon, chairman of Britain's National Catholic Safeguarding Commission who helped organize the meeting, told the BBC the victims got "something between 30 and 40 minutes."
Asked if the victims were angry, he said: "No, I wouldn't say they were angry. I think there is anger in them ... But anger can be very constructive if they work for change."
The sex-abuse scandal has clouded Benedict's state visit to this 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.
During a Mass in Westminster Cathedral earlier Saturday, Benedict said he hoped the church's humiliation would help victims heal and help the church purify itself and renew its commitment to educating the young.
His comments were in line with his previous statements on the topic.
"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, 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."
Sunday, on his last day in Britain, Benedict is scheduled to beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman, a 19th-century convert from Anglicanism whom the pope wants to hold up as a model for the faithful.
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