LONDON — Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday began a four-day tour of Britain, the first-ever state visit by a pontiff to this island nation, by offering his sharpest critique yet of official lapses that allowed thousands of children to be sexually abused by clerics in a scandal that has rocked Catholic churches across Europe.
Speaking to reporters on the plane from Rome to Edinburgh, the first stop on his British tour, Benedict expressed "sadness" that "the authority of the church was not sufficiently vigilant and not sufficiently swift and decisive to take the necessary measures" to prevent the crimes. Though most of the cases date back decades, the majority have come to light over the past year.
Benedict said that abusive priests suffered from an illness that mere "goodwill" could not cure and that they must never have access to children. The pope told reporters that the victims were now the church's top priority.
Benedict's visit is suffused with controversy and historic verve, Britain having broken with the Vatican in the 16th century over Henry VIII's divorce. Amid planned protests and a blistering gaffe by a top Vatican aide comparing the U.K. to a "third-world country," official Britain rolled out the red carpet, with the Duke of Edinburgh, the husband of Queen Elizabeth II, breaking tradition by greeting the pope upon arrival. Typically, state guests go to the royals, not the other way around.
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Benedict was later whisked to the stately Palace of Holyroodhouse, the official Scottish residence of the Royal Family, to meet the queen, who also holds the title of "supreme governor" of the Church of England. In back-to-back speeches, the queen and Benedict emphasized Christian unity, with the pope calling Britain a "mighty force for good."
The pontiff celebrated an open-air Mass drawing tens of thousands of faithful, though the turnout was lower than organizers had hoped. In London today, Benedict will address Parliament. On Saturday, he will meet Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nicholas Clegg, an avowed atheist.