Pope hopes for private meeting with clerical abuse victims during UK visit

Pope Benedict XVI is looking into organising a private meeting with victims of clerical abuse during his upcoming state visit to Britain later this summer.

Vincent Nichols, the archbishop of Westminster and leader of Catholics in England and Wales, said today that “careful consideration” was being made by the Vatican into holding some sort of private meeting during his four day visit.

Globally the Catholic Church is experiencing a raft of damaging new sexual abuse scandals, most recently in Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and the United States.

Although Britain’s own Catholic abuse scandals came out into the open primarily in the early 2000s, many survivors are still keen that the Pope make a clear gesture regarding paedophile priests during his visit to the UK.

During previous recent papal visits to Malta, Australia and the United States, the 83-year-old pope has taken time out to hold meetings behind closed doors with people who were raped or abused by priests and nuns.

Archbishop Nichols was keen to emphasise that any decision over meeting abuse survivors would not be made to assuage the media or the church’s critics.

“There will be, as you have seen in previous visits, careful consideration given to whether it is appropriate for the Pope to privately meet with people who have suffered abuse,” he said. “It’s very important that, if such a visit was to take place, it is not seen as a way to use those who have suffered – whose pain is intense and continuing – to satisfy some kind of public agenda or public curiosity. Nobody should be pressing the pope to meet victims of abuse in order to get a good photograph.”

The archbishop said that he didn’t expect the Pope to spend all his trip “fire-fighting” the issue of clerical abuse and that he couldn’t say whether the Pope would address the paedophile scandal directly.

But he added: “He will obviously have to consider the balance between this being a visit to the United Kingdom – which is not Belgium, which is not Ireland, which is not the United States – and the wider public interest that there is in how the church is responding to these issues.”

Archbishop Nichols was speaking as Lord Patten of Barnes, the Prime Minister’s special representative for the papal visit, admitted that the government’s bill for hosting the Pope’s visit will rise by as much as 50%.

Because the visit has both state and pastoral elements to it, the costs of the visit are being divided between the tax payer and the church.

Whilst the public will pay for all the state elements such as visiting the Queen and security costs, the church will pick up the bill for the open air mass, prayer vigil and beatification ceremony that the Pope will hold during his four day visit.

Lord Patten, who is himself a prominent Catholic, admitted that the government’s previous estimate of £8m for their contribution had not taken into account the “complexity and sophistication” of hosting such a visit. Instead, he said, the costs are likely to be between £10m and £12m.

But even those estimates do not include policing costs, which will also have to be picked up by the tax payer. "We now reckon that on the Government side that we will have to make a larger commitment even though we have driven down the costs of some elements of the visit," said.

Lord Patten said it would not yet be possible to put a final figure on the policing costs because that would “depend on the estimates of turnout at particular events and that’s quite difficult to calculate.”

The church’s contribution is estimated to be in the region of £7m to cover the pastoral events for the visit which takes place between 16-19 September.

So far Catholic Church in England, Wales and Scotland have raised £5.1m, £4m of which has come from private donors. Archbishop Nichols said the church would have to continue fundraising to meet their costs but he was keen to stress that the public would not be called on to make up any shortfall.

Yes we will have to raise more money and that will not be a problem,” he said. “But we are not looking to the state to support the expressions and the celebration of Catholic faith. I would like to stress that not a penny is expected from public funding for those aspect of the [visit] that are an expression of the Catholic faith.”

There are now clear indications that the four day trip will be comparatively scaled down compared to John Paul II’s pastoral visit in 1982. The culmination of Benedict’s visit will be the beatification ceremony of Cardinal Newman, which has been moved from Coventry Airport to the smaller venue of Crofton Park in Birmingham which the Vatican prefers because the area is more intimately associated with the nineteenth century theologian. An open air mass in Belahouston Park, meanwhile, will be open to much fewer pilgrims than the 280,000 that packed into the park to see John Paul. It is thought the park will accommodate roughly 150,000 people for Benedict, partly because of modern health and safety legislation but also because the park’s trees have grown in the past two decades restricting line of sight to any main stage.

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