Sex Scandal Overshadows Pope's U.K. Visit

Pope Benedict is on a state visit to Britain — the first ever such visit to a country which split from Rome and created the Anglican Church in the 16th century. The pope's visit to Britain — and a rally of those opposing his trip — will be held at Hyde Park Corner in London later Saturday. Guest host Robert Smith talks with NPR's Philip Reeves, who is in London.

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ROBERT SMITH, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Robert Smith. Pope Benedict is on the third day of a state visit to Britain. Today the Pope met with victims of clergy sexual abuse and tackled that issue head-on during a Mass in London's Westminster Cathedral.

Pope BENEDICT: I expressed 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.

SMITH: Earlier this morning, I spoke with NPR's Philip Reeves in London, who is following the papal visit. He explained the significance of Pope Benedict's words.

PHILIP REEVES: They are indeed, Robert, powerful words and it's his strongest words, in fact, on this subject so far. I think the setting is significant -this was in Westminster Cathedral - that's the mother church of the Catholic Church in England and Wales. And he said these words in his homily during a mass.

You know, the formality, the solemnity of the occasion, the sense of piety, the sense of ceremony I think gave it the feel of a real act of contrition. Added weight was lent to this by the sheer strength of his language. I mean, he's talking of unspeakable crimes committed against children by priests from the Roman Catholic Church that he heads.

So I think all in all this was a very important moment in this terrible issue.

SMITH: And this is more than a passing reference. He had other things to say.

REEVES: Yeah. He spoke of his hope that this chastisement, by which I assume he meant his words, will contribute to the healing of the victims and the purification of the church and also the renewal of what he called the age-old commitment to the education and care of young people. And that's, of course, historically an issue of great importance to the Catholic Church.

And there is a sense here that this fundamental thing has been violated. And he said, the pope said, he was thinking about the immense suffering caused by child abuse, specifically, especially, he said, within the church and by her ministers.

SMITH: Phil, I know leading up to this visit - in fact, during the visit, people have been in the streets protesting the pope around this sex abuse scandal. Do you think it's going to change any opinions there in Britain?

REEVES: Yeah, I mean, you know, people have complained that the press and media has overemphasized the child abuse scandal. But, you know, the pope himself has made this the issue that dominates the visit, although there are other themes. You know, he has mentioned this issue twice now, addressed this issue twice. On Thursday, as he flew into Britain, to Scotland, he spoke to reporters on the plane and he admitted that the church hadn't been sufficiently vigilant, quick or decisive enough in acting against child abuse within it.

And he spoke of the importance of giving top priority, top priority, to the victims of this child abuse. Now, those words at the time were rejected by some victims' groups who said that he failed to address what they perceived to be the real issue, which is the cover-up of child abuse within the Catholic Church. This abuse happened on a huge scale, as you know. They believed that the Vatican was complicit in hiding the evidence and also evading the issue.

The pope appears now to be very clear that he wants to address this issue publicly before the world, but we'll see how the victims' groups and others who've been highly critical of the papacy over this terrible issue, how they react to the latest attempt by the pope today at reconciliation.

SMITH: Now, the pope is keeping a normal schedule. He has an event in Hyde Park today, but this comes after six street cleaners were arrested in London, apparently on suspicion of plotting an attack on the pope. I mean - very quickly - do we know anything more about that?

REEVES: Not really. You know, it was an armed raid, antiterrorism police involved. They arrested them at a depot early yesterday, and it was just before this huge gathering of the elite, political elite and of politicians and leaders in Westminster Hall in the middle of London. And at the time it seemed terribly important. But the only new news we have really is that they're still being questioned and it's still unclear exactly what, if anything, was plotted against the pope.

SMITH: NPR's Philip Reeves in London. Thanks.

REEVES: You're welcome.

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