Pope's Australia visit overshadowed by abuse case

Allegations that a priest sex scandal was covered up and a row about civil liberties threaten to blight six-day Sydney festival

Pope Benedict XVI flies into Australia today for the longest trip yet of his three-year papacy, to be greeted by a row about civil liberties and a sexual abuse scandal embroiling the country's highest-ranked Roman Catholic cleric.

The Pope will preside over World Youth Day, a six-day festival of peace, love and Christianity, culminating in an open-air Mass next Sunday at Sydney's main horse-racing track, which is expected to attract up to half a million people.

World Youth Day has drawn an estimated 200,000 people to the city from around the world. But the Pope's arrival has been preceded by a furore over new laws that give police the power to arrest anyone who "annoys" visiting pilgrims. Offenders could be fined A$5,500 (£2,680).

Critics believe the laws – passed by the New South Wales government – are aimed at clamping down on protesters, who plan to hand out condoms during a pilgrims' procession through Sydney's eastern suburbs on Saturday.

One group, the NoToPope Coalition, claims it will be illegal to wear T-shirts with anti-Catholic slogans. They held an "annoying fashion parade" outside the state parliament last week, donning T-shirts with messages such as "Pope Go Homo".

Australia's most senior Catholic cleric, Cardinal George Pell, meanwhile, has spent the past week fending off accusations that he covered up the case of a young man indecently assaulted in 1982 by a priest, Father Terence Goodall.

Cardinal Pell told Anthony Jones in 2003 that a church inquiry had not upheld his allegations, although, in fact, the opposite was true. He also told Mr Jones that there had been no other complaints against Goodall and that, according to the priest, the encounter had been consensual.

On the same day, however, he wrote to another man assaulted by Goodall as an 11-year-old altar boy, informing him that his allegations had been substantiated.

An ABC television programme, Lateline, then produced telephone recordings of a conversation in which the priest admitted to Mr Jones that he knew the latter had not consented.

Cardinal Pell – who himself was forced to stand aside temporarily in 2002 following allegations, later dismissed, that he had molested a 12-year-old boy – agreed that his letter to Mr Jones had been "badly worded and a mistake". But he denied misleading him or trying to suppress the incident. Last Thursday he bowed to pressure and referred the case to an independent review panel.

The Pope – who said yesterday he would apologise in Australia for abuse by Catholic clergy, as he did while visiting the US in April – will spend the first three days of his trip at a retreat on the outskirts of Sydney, run by the ultra-conservative Catholic group Opus Dei. On Thursday, after travelling by boat across Sydney Harbour, he will receive an official welcome, and then greet crowds.

World Youth Day was the idea of the Pope's predecessor, John Paul II, who believed it would revitalise Catholic youth. The Sydney event will include more than 150 outdoor concerts, and tens of thousands of people are expected to walk across the Harbour Bridge.

The biggest problem the Pope will face is indifference. Although Catholics are the largest religious group in Australia, only a small proportion practise their faith in what is one of the world's most secular countries.

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