Leading article: The Pope should reconsider his state visit to Britain

He may not be guilty of crimes but he has failed his role as pontiff
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Over the past few days the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, has used Holy Week vociferously to defend the Pope from the charges of colluding in the paedophile scandals that have hit Ireland, the US and Germany. It was not the Pope's direct responsibility, Nichols has argued. Indeed, as head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (successor to the Inquisition) the present Pope was at the forefront of toughening up the Church's rules on errant priests.

It is a robust defence. As an archbishop, Vincent Nichols clearly has a duty to mount a defence against the rising criticism of the "Holy Father". As a man who must understand just how serious this crisis is to the standing of the Church and the faith of its parishioners, however, the Archbishop should be privately advising Benedict XVI to consider cancelling his forthcoming visit to Britain next September. The Pope, to put it baldly, is now too embattled and too damaged by the worldwide revelations of abuse and cover-up to be able to come to this country without controversy, protests and distaste.

This is not simply a matter of the specific charges brought against him for complicity in a cover-up of child abuse in Germany and Wisconsin when Archbishop of Munich and then head of the relevant Vatican department. The papal office can claim that he was not directly responsible for the German case and that he had not, as reported, actually stopped the proceedings against the Wisconsin priest.

But that is to relegate the crimes to the area of professional misconduct rather than criminal acts. The problem for Pope Benedict – or Joseph Ratzinger as he then was – is that he has always been a bureaucrat of the church and seen its problems in terms of institutional discipline. Tinkering with canon law, as he did, simply won't serve in a world where paedophilia is dealt with as a crime to be judged in the public courts. The Church is, and has been, an enormous force for good in the community. But it, and the Pope, also has a moral voice which has been severely damaged by the sense of widespread abuse and cover-up in its ranks.

It is even worse for the faithful. The role of the priest is a very special one in the Roman Catholic Church. It is what sets it aside from most other Christian, and indeed other religious, groups. The priest has a unique role of responsibility, above all to children. At no point does the Pope in all his apologies seem to have taken on board how great has been the betrayal of his own flock.

The Roman Catholic Church, with more than a billion followers, is one of the largest and most global organisations in the world. Of course the Pope's visit is an official and important one, in which he will be entertained by the Queen and acclaimed by the Prime Minister. No one should say that he is not welcome here.

But it is precisely because it is a state occasion, planned as a grand visit, that he should reconsider it. It's the wrong time and the wrong occasion. The Roman Catholic Church arguably faces its greatest crisis in a century from this scandal. The Pope's place, on his return from his summer retreat, should be in Rome, visibly mediating on the duties and failings of his role as shepherd of his universal church.

If he has to come here, he might consider doing so as a penitent on his way from Germany to Ireland then on to the United States and Mexico, where the litany of child abuse by priests is daily sounded.