Jerome Taylor: Reception in Malta is just a warm-up

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Chances are the Pope will not look back on his 83rd birthday fondly. Doctors may have given Benedict XVI a clean bill of health, but no one can do the same for his Church.

This weekend's trip to Malta will offer little respite. It is the first overseas papal visit since the renewed European clergy-abuse scandal broke out, and all eyes will be on the Pope. The trip itself will last little more than 26 hours and the itinerary is already packed. But the demands from abuse victims who say they want to meet the Pontiff will give him yet another headache.

The Vatican has indicated that it might hold a meeting away from the media glare. This would help restore confidence that the Pope takes a personal interest in consoling abuse victims, as opposed to protecting perpetrators. He has met victims on visits to Australia and the US, so why not Malta? The problem is that the Catholic Church would prefer to avoid every papal visit becoming an exercise in penitence, dominated by visits to sex-abuse victims and public apologies.

But if there are protests in the Mediterranean this weekend, the Pope can at least treat them as a warm-up for this summer when he comes to the UK. John Paul II may have seduced Britain in 1982 with his charisma and inclusiveness, but Benedict is a very different character arriving under much more strenuous circumstances. Further abuse revelations are bound to come to light, and how the Vatican handles the crisis (the PR has been dreadful) will have a huge impact on how he is received here.

Then there is the anti-Pope coalition who have vowed to protest his every move, not to mention Richard Dawkins' plan to have him arrested. And barring any more Icelandic eruptions, Britain will be easily accessible through cheap short-haul flights from Europe. What's to stop abuse victims from Ireland, Germany or Holland giving the Pope a piece of their mind on British soil?