Catholic Britain rejoices, but abuse overshadows Pope's first state visit

Gap in itinerary may hide secret meeting to apologise to victims

Plans are being drawn up for the Pope to hold private meetings with people who suffered sexual abuse at the hands of clerics during this week's visit to Britain.

Benedict XVI arrives in Edinburgh tomorrow morning, in the first state visit to Britain by a pope. His trip represents a seminal moment in the relationship between the Vatican and a country that helped spearhead the Reformation with its spiritual break from Rome.

But it will also be a major opportunity for the Catholic Church to cast itself in a new light following one the most troubled years in its recent history with scores of new clerical sex abuse scandals breaking out in western Europe, the United States and parts of Latin America.

Church officials have refused to comment publicly on whether the Pope will reach out to abuse victims during his visit. But The Independent understands that plans have been drawn up for the pontiff to hold private meetings. These will still require final Vatican approval.

Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, has said that the Pope has been giving "careful consideration" to such a meeting. Observers say it is now highly unlikely that Benedict will not make some sort of gesture that recognises the harm caused by abusive priests.

Previous visits to Malta, Australia and the United States all included emotional meetings with abuse victims which were regarded as a visibly important step in the Church's public response to an issue that has dogged the Vatican for more than a decade.

Vatican policy dictates that meetings with abuse victims are never publicised in advance and church officials refused to comment publicly on whether they would go ahead.

"Over a number of previous visits there have been meetings between the Pope and those who have suffered sexual abuse," a source with knowledge of the visit said. "There are very strict parameters that govern how these meetings take place. The first is that the talks are private with no mediators. The second is that these meetings are never announced beforehand."

But seasoned commentators say a meeting is all but certain. "To not hold some sort of meeting would be a PR disaster," said one prominent Catholic who asked to remain anonymous. "It would send a terrible message."

Successive polls have shown a palpable indifference to the Pope's visit among non-Catholics and a growing gulf between the Pope's teachings and the opinions of ordinary lay Catholics in Britain. A new poll of more than 2,000 people released by ITV's Daybreak today, however, has also found that 80 per cent of Britons would like the Pope to issue some sort of apology for the worldwide clerical child abuse scandal during his visit.

Amnesty International yesterday also called on the Vatican to do more to address concerns surrounding child abuse, including doing more to co-operate with criminal investigations, open up records of its internal inquiries to public scrutiny, and to offer an apology and reparations to all survivors of abuse.

Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK, said: "While the Pope has acknowledged the gravity of the abuse, more needs to be done to offer redress to the victims and prevent these abuses from reoccurring."

If a meeting with abuse victims does go ahead the most likely time for it to take place is on Saturday, the only day in the Pope's four-day itinerary that has a significant amount of spare time.

On Saturday morning, the 83-year-old pontiff will pay a series of courtesy calls to prominent politicians, including David Cameron. He will then travel to Westminster Cathedral to celebrate a 10am Mass but there will then be a five-hour break before the Pope holds a prayer vigil in Hyde Park.

There is also some space for private meetings to take place between the Pope and chosen members of his flock on Friday when Benedict visits thousands of school children in Twickenham, west London.

In his final briefing yesterday to reporters before the Pope touches down, Archbishop Nichols admitted that the global Catholic Church should have done better in its handling of clerical abuse. "The Church has made a mess of its response to incidences of child abuse," he said. "There is nothing that can be said to excuse the crimes committed by members of the clergy against children. The damage that is done strikes right at the core of a person; in the capacity to trust another; in their capacity to love another and – especially in the context of the Church – in their capacity to believe in God."

But the Archbishop also reiterated his belief that British Catholics would greet the pontiff with open arms.

"The Catholic tradition in this country is one of actually very profound loyalty to the person of the Holy Father," the Archbishop said. "While many would want to suggest differences of trends and opinion, this way or not, I am quite sure, and it is my experience in parish after parish, standing at the back of Westminster Cathedral day after day, that Catholics are looking forward to this visit very much indeed. The Catholic people of this country know what it is to show their affection and support for Pope Benedict."

In the run-up to the Pope's visit new attempts have been made by the Church to reach out to abuse victims.

Last month members of the Catholic Safeguarding Advisory Service met a number of survivor groups – including the Survivors Trust and Macsas (Ministry and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors) – to discuss future pastoral care for victims.

Dr Margaret Kennedy, the founder of Macsas, said: "It was a rather acrimonious meeting to be honest. A lot of survivors feel fed up with the way they were treated by the Church and feel this is too little, too late."

Macsas says that it has requested a public meeting with the Pope to give him a book of survivor testimonies. Its requests have so far been refused, with the Church instead offering to give the book to the Pope "via an intermediary".

The Pope's visit in numbers

Length of visit: 4 days.

Number of venues the Pope will visit in UK: four (Edinburgh, Glasgow, London, Birmingham).

Number of tickets originally placed on sale: 255,000.

Tickets sold: 219,000 (est.).

Expected attendance at open-air Mass in Bellahouston Park, Glasgow, on Friday: up to 80,000. (Price of tickets: up to £20.)

Expected attendance at prayer vigil in Hyde Park, London, on Saturday: 85,000. (Price of tickets: £5.)

Expected attendance at Cofton Park, Birmingham, at Mass celebrating the beatification of John Henry Newman on Sunday: 54,000. (Price of tickets: up to £25.)

Roman Catholics worldwide: 1.166 billion.

Roman Catholics in England, Scotland and Wales: about 6 million.

Weekly Mass attendance in UK: about 1.1 million.

Number of active Catholic priests in England, Scotland and Wales: 4,400.

Estimated cost of visit: up to £20m. UK taxpayers' contribution to cost of visit: up to £12m.

Members of Pope's entourage whose accommodation will be paid for by the British taxpayer: 11.

Years since last papal visit: 28.

Number of reigning Popes who have previously visited UK: 1.

Number of English-born Popes: 1 (Nicholas Brakespear – Adrian IV – Pope from 1154 to 1159).

Estimated cost of policing the Pope's visit: £1.5m.

Expected attendance at Saturday's Protest the Pope rally in London: 2,000.

Lines of official memorabilia on sale during trip: 80.

Price of official papal visit gold medallion: £775.

Price of official T-shirt: £18.

Price of official baseball cap: £15.

Estimated value to Glasgow and Edinburgh of economic boost resulting from visit: £13m.

Area of Vatican: 1.2 square miles.

Nations with which the Vatican has diplomatic relations: 178.

Nations in which Roman Catholic priests have been accused of child abuse: 28.

Total damages likely to be paid to abuse victims in the US alone: $5bn.

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