Seven out of 10 British Catholics believe that a woman should have the right to choose whether to have an abortion, according to a remarkable new poll that shows how far out of step the Vatican is with its congregation as Pope Benedict XVI completes his first visit to the UK.
The poll conducted by YouGov, which also revealed that nine out of 10 Catholic worshippers support the wide availability of contraception, quizzed a sample of more than 1,600 practising Catholics about their views on the vexed issues of abortion and contraception.
The research, the biggest survey of its kind, which also sampled a control group of non-Catholics, reveals that just one in 10 of the church's followers oppose an abortion when a woman has been raped. Just one in 14 opposes abortion if the health of a woman is in danger.
The findings are likely to send a strong signal to the pontiff that the vast majority of Catholics in the UK do not share his views in the area of abortion and fertility control. In 2008, Pope Benedict renewed the position of the Catholic church against the use of birth control and contraception.
The results of the poll, carried out earlier this month, are released as the Pope made his strongest comments yet on the issue of abuse by Catholic clergy when he spoke of his sorrow at the victims' suffering. As the Holy Father yesterday acknowledged the shame and humiliation that the victims have endured, in his sermon at a mass in Westminster Cathedral, he called on the Catholic community to offer the "unspeakable" sins up to God to aid the healing process.
"I think of the immense suffering caused by the abuse of children, especially within the church and by her ministers," he said. "Above all 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.
"I also acknowledge with you the shame and the humiliation which all of us have suffered because of these sins; and I invite you to offer it to the Lord with trust that 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. I express my gratitude for the efforts being made to address this problem responsibly and I ask all of you to show your concern for victims and solidarity with your priests."
Groups defending victims were not satisfied, with one group named Bishop.Accountability.org calling it "public relations not penitence".
"An apology is what a schoolboy does when he kicks a football through a window. What we need is for the Pope to release all the files on predator priests," Sue Cox, a demonstrator who was abused as a child, said on television.
During a visit to an old people's home run by Catholic nuns, Pope benedict spoke to a group of lay people who oversee the implementation of child protection measures and told them it was important that "any allegations of abuse are dealt with swiftly and justly".
Bill Kilgallon, chair of the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission (NCSC), said: "It was very good. He met with a group of us who were involved in safeguarding and was very positive about the work that we are doing. He particularly said he was pleased at the way we have built up co-operation with the statutory authorities in this country, and that we work closely with them. He was very pleased to have met some people who had experienced abuse. He met five people earlier today. Clearly the Pope found the meeting helpful."
During the day, some 10,000 chanting demonstrators snaked though the streets of London to protest against his handling of the abuse crisis and Pope Benedict's views on homosexuals and the ordination of women. They carried banners reading "Benedict's homophobia costs lives" and "Protect the Children – Demote the Pope". It was the largest demonstration so far on the Pope's four-day visit to Britain and the largest on any of his 17 trips abroad.
In the early evening, the Pope drove past some of London's landmarks, including Buckingham Palace, as tens of thousands cheered him on his way to a prayer vigil in Hyde Park, where some 80,000 people had gathered.
He began the day with a Mass for some 2,000 people in Westminster Cathedral, the mother church for Roman Catholics in England and Wales and a symbol of the struggle of Catholics to assert their rights after the Reformation.
Many devotees spoke of a warm atmosphere of Catholic camaraderie when more than 20 coaches pulled into the car park at Wembley Stadium from as far afield as Lancaster and France. One group of 42 devotees from St Peter's Cathedral in Lancaster – the youngest of whom was seven – set their alarms for 5am yesterday morning to begin the long coach journey down to London.
Mark, one of those who travelled with the group, said: "For me, today is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. All the media bashing recently actually just made me want to come more. The opportunity to see the Pope is an exciting one for Catholics – he's the human link to God."
Today, the pope flies to Birmingham in central England, where he will beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman, one of the most prominent English converts from Anglicanism to Catholicism.
Victims of abuse by priests speak out
'There's this wall of silence. Who believes you?'
Victims of abuse by Roman Catholic priests yesterday met the Pope. "He was moved by what they had to say and expressed his deep sorrow and shame" over what they had suffered, a Vatican spokesman said. Other abuse victims also spoke out yesterday.
Sue Cox, from the Protest the Pope organisation, was first abused by her family priest 50 years ago.
"I was brought up in a very strict Catholic family. The first time I was abused was the night before communion and I had to go to confession the next day with the same person. The second time, he raped me in my own home. I was distraught; when my mother found out – she disturbed him [during the rape] – we couldn't talk about it. She mumbled something like, 'pray for him', and 'it was all part of God's plan'. I didn't think it was a very good plan."
Therese Albrecht of the US group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (Snap)
"I was eight when I was raped and sodomised by a Catholic priest. I was distressed and destroyed. It ruined my life and when I finally managed to speak out I found the church would not act. I was also sexually abused by a nun. So I found my voice and we have come to England to protest. I have come from the US to give a message that he [the Pope] needs to do more to protect children from predator priests. I go to Catholic mass once in a while. It's very traumatic for me. But I still love God.
Barbara Blaine, Snap president
"I was abused as a child by a priest in my church. When I finally got the courage to speak up, they made a lot of empty promises and did nothing. I found other people and we realised we were not alone. We are disappointed by response of the Pope so far. Grand apologies are not enough."
Sarah Reader, a film-maker from south London
"I'm a lapsed Catholic. I hear the Pope on all these holy rants and I think it's dreadful. My friends watch this stuff in the news and then they look at me, and they can't connect the two, because they know what happened. There's almost a belief that it's not as bad as normal abuse if a member of the church is responsible for it. We can never be compensated for this. It's ironic he's come here and called us an aggressively secular society and implied we're heathens when they're still covering up the abuse of children."
Christina Short, from London
When this happens to children, who do they report to? There's this wall of silence. Who believes you? A child doesn't understand what's happening to them, and they're terrified. In Catholicism the priest is next to God, this is the man who you go to for confession, this man is meant to absolve you of your sins – if he's abusing you, what then? As an adult I can't figure out the answer. The church just wants to hush it all up."
Interviews by Andrew McCorkell, Pavan Amara and James Burton. Additional reporting: Charlotte Sewell