Foreign Office apologises over Pope visit paper

The Foreign Office was forced to issue a public apology after an official document suggested Britain should mark the Pope's visit this year by asking him to open an abortion clinic, bless a gay marriage and launch a range of Benedict-branded condoms.

The document, obtained by the Sunday Telegraph, also suggested Benedict XVI could show his hard line on the sensitive issue of child abuse allegations against Roman Catholic priests by "sacking dodgy bishops" and launching a helpline for abused children.

The ideas were included in a paper titled "The ideal visit would see..." which was distributed to officials in Whitehall and Downing Street preparing for the historic visit in September. A cover note said the paper stemmed from a brainstorming session and accepted that some of the ideas were "far-fetched".

Many of the proposals appeared to mock the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church on issues like abortion, homosexuality and contraception and the difficulties which it is currently experiencing over cases of child abuse.

Last night, the Foreign Office apologised for what it described as a "foolish" document and said the individual responsible had been transferred to other duties.

Foreign Secretary David Miliband was said to have been "appalled" to hear of the paper, and Britain's Ambassador to the Vatican, Francis Campbell, met senior officials of the Holy See to express the Government's regret.

The Foreign Office confirmed that the memo was drawn up by a small group of three or four junior staff in a team working on the papal visit. The document was withdrawn after it was circulated to more senior staff.

A spokesman said that the Foreign Office approached the Vatican and the Catholic Church in England yesterday when it became apparent that its contents had become public.

The memo also suggested that the Pope could apologise for the Spanish Armada or sing a song with the Queen for charity.

And it listed "positive" people who could be attached to the trip, including Tony Blair and TV talent show contestant Susan Boyle, along with others considered "negative", including footballer Wayne Rooney and prominent atheist Richard Dawkins, who threatened to carry out a citizen's arrest on Benedict.

The paper was attached as one of three "background documents" to a memo dated March 5 inviting officials to attend a meeting to discuss themes for the papal visit.

In a note, the official responsible for sending out the memo - a junior civil servant in his 20s - said: "Please protect; these should not be shared externally. The 'ideal visit' paper in particular was the product of a brainstorm which took into account even the most far-fetched of ideas."

An investigation was launched after some recipients of the memo objected to the disrespectful tone of the paper.

A Foreign Office spokesman said: "This is clearly a foolish document that does not in any way reflect UK Government or Foreign Office policy or views. Many of the ideas in the document are clearly ill-judged, naive and disrespectful.

"The text was not cleared or shown to ministers or senior officials before circulation. As soon as senior officials became aware of the document, it was withdrawn from circulation.

"The individual responsible has been transferred to other duties. He has been told orally and in writing that this was a serious error of judgment and has accepted this view.

"The Foreign Office very much regrets this incident and is deeply sorry for the offence which it has caused. We strongly value the close and productive relationship between the UK Government and the Holy See and look forward to deepening this further with the visit of Pope Benedict to the UK later this year."

Cardinal Renato Martino, former head of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, told the Mail on Sunday: "The British Government has invited the Pope as its guest and he should be treated with respect.

"To make a mockery of his beliefs and the beliefs of millions of Catholics, not just in Britain but across the world, is very offensive indeed."