Child abuse victims urge Pope to act

Hostility and apathy alike overshadow this week's papal visit.

Victims of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests yesterday called on Pope Benedict XVI to sanction an inquiry into abuses by British clergy. Speaking on the eve of the papal visit to the UK this week, abused parishioners from England, Scotland, the USA and Australia yesterday accused the Pope of doing too little to protect children from abuse.

Dr Margaret Kennedy, who founded Minister And Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors, said: "We don't want words any more from the Vatican; we want action. The actions have not happened – concrete, discernible decisions about who is going to care for survivors of clergy abuse. What are they going to do to repair our lives?"

They said they planned to try and give the Pope a copy of a book containing accounts of abuse survivors during his visit. According to them Pope Benedict has repeatedly turned down requests for a formal meeting.

Their call comes as it was revealed that a former abbot of a prestigious Catholic establishment has been summoned back to the UK from Rome in connection with a police investigation into allegations of sexual abuse at St Benedict's School, Ealing, in west London. The Right Rev Dom Lawrence Soper, 80, now based at Collegio Sant'Anselmo in Rome, will voluntarily return to London this month to answer questions. Lord Carlile QC has been appointed to lead an independent inquiry into continuing allegations at the school.

The appeal also follows the publication of a report in Belgium last week suggesting systemic child abuse by Catholic clergy. The inquiry lists 476 instances of child abuse by priests and bishops going back 50 years. Yesterday, Roger Vangheluwe, the former Belgian bishop who resigned in April after admitting he sexually abused a nephew, said he would go into hiding to assess his future, despite calls for him to leave the church immediately.

Pope Benedict's failure to tackle the child abuse issue adequately is just one of a number of criticisms facing the Catholic church ahead of his arrival in Edinburgh on Thursday. Issues ranging from homosexuality, the ordination of women priests, contraception to prevent the spread of Aids, and abortion threaten to overshadow the visit. A series of Protest the Pope events are planned.

A recent poll showed 77 per cent of Britons do not want the taxpayer to contribute £12m towards the visit. Where there is not outright hostility there is growing apathy: organisers fear the crowds that greeted the last papal visit in 1982 will not be equalled.

Only 80,000 people are expected to travel to open-air Mass in Bellahouston Park, Glasgow, that could accommodate 100,000 communicants. In contrast, some 300,000 gathered at the same venue for Pope John Paul II's visit in 1982. Indifference towards the visit is also rife in Ireland, where only a fifth of the 2,500 Glasgow tickets allocated to Irish Catholics have been taken up.

Senior Catholics commented last night that attitudes towards this week's visit were noticeably more hostile than during John Paul II's trip to Britain 28 years ago. Michael Evans, Bishop of East Anglia, said: "People are more vocal now, and there's less interest in religion than when Pope John Paul came before .... All you ever hear about is the child abuse; no one wants to talk about anything else. He [the Pope] talks about more."

Some Catholics argue there is increasing hostility towards Catholics. They cite programmes such as Channel 4's The Trouble with the Pope, to be broadcast tomorrow night, in which the human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell examines the papal record on issues ranging from stem cells to Aids.

The author Clifford Longley said: "There's now a rise of more aggressive secular feeling against Catholicism and the Pope. The Pope is not personally responsible [for child abuse within the church]. He cannot take the blame .... Lawyers put him in the spotlight as part of the problem, but actually he's part of the solution. I think a lot of that misrepresentation is because of prejudice towards Catholics generally."

Papal visit to UK: The itinerary

Thursday 16 September Pope lands in Edinburgh. State welcome and audience with the Queen at Holyrood House. Open-air Mass in Bellahouston Park, Glasgow, with Susan Boyle as soloist.

Friday 17 September Travels to Westminster. Appears with the Archbishop of Canterbury and Canon Jane Hedges, campaigner for female bishops in the Church of England. Gives speech at Westminster Hall, attended by 1,800, including Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Gordon Brown. Evening prayers in Westminster Abbey.

Saturday 18 September Meetings at Archbishop's House with David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Harriet Harman. Mass at Westminster Cathedral. Thousands expected on the Protest the Pope march to Hyde Park, where the Pope will be leading prayers.

Sunday 19 September Flies to Birmingham. Beatification of Cardinal Henry Newman in Cofton Park. Lunch with the bishops of England, Scotland and Wales. Leaves for Rome.

How much will it all cost? A lot more than expected. The Government has paid £12m. The church has raised £10m for pastoral gatherings.

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