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Catholic child abuse scandals and cost of Pope's state visit to UK draw protests

posted 12 Sept 2010, 08:25 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 12 Sept 2010, 08:29 ]

Various protests are expected during the first papal state visit to the country in September, including by secularists, gay rights groups and those angry at the child-abuse scandal which has spread throughout the Roman Catholic church globally.

It's a hive of activity in the London offices of the British Humanist Association, where volunteers make up banners and posters protesting the Pope's upcoming visit to the UK (September 16-19).

The Protest The Pope campaign brings together a wide variety of groups opposed to the fact that the visit of Pope Benedict XVI's is a state visit, meaning the estimated 20 million pound price tag will be part-funded by the British tax-payer, at a time when the Catholic church is rocked by child-abuse scandals and the country is preparing for drastic government spending cuts.

The volunteers, from gay rights and women's rights groups, child-abuse support groups and secularists fashion papal mitres out of pink paper and joke with each other as they think up slogans to write on the front.

"Hands off my eggs, Benedict!" and "Get your rosaries off my ovaries" raise laughs.

But underneath the humour there is real anger at the Pope's visit.

Grainne (pronounced Gron-Yay) Maguire said she will be taking part in the Protest the Pope march through central London next Saturday (September 18) because she's upset at the way Pope Benedict is handling the world-wide child-abuse scandals within the Catholic church.

"He should be ashamed of himself. There's no sorrow. There's no remorse. There is almost this arrogance that the church is such a mysterious thing that we don't understand. And I think most people's gut instincts are that they were revolted, again and again and again there are more cases of priests abusing their position, abusing their trust," she said.

Activists from the U.S.-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) have come to the UK to demand the Pope do more to protect vulnerable children.

In a small demonstration outside the Wimbledon Nunziature, where the Pope will stay during the London leg of his visit, victims of priest sexual abuse, laid out photographs of children they said had been molested by priests and flyers with the word "Betrayed" written on them.

"We are asking that the Pope and the Vatican, establish a world-wide database with the names of all the known and credibly accused predator priests," said Barbara Blaine, founder of SNAP.

Pete Saunders, founder of the British group the National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC), wants the Vatican to donate money to charities like his, which offer support to victims.

"It's actions that count, not gestures and words. There are millions of people in this country who have suffered child abuse in the past and there are very few resources to support them and it's time that institutions like the church got their finger out and gave us the resources," he said.

Saunders said he was abused by a priest in his Catholic school.

The priest is now dead and so Saunders cannot seek prosecution. He said the trauma suffered as a child lives with him as an adult.

"I don't think you ever forget what happened to you. You live with the consequences for the rest of your life but we as a charity try and encourage people to heal and to move on. And we believe that is possible but it takes a lot of hard work," he said.

The 83-year-old German pontiff, facing the worst crisis of his five-year papacy, has said the church has to seek forgiveness from abuse victims and has promised it will do all it can to probe accusations and bring culprits to justice.

He is expected to meet privately with some sexual abuse victims during his visit.

In an interview with Reuters Television, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the leader of the Catholic church in England and Wales, said that lessons being learnt by the Catholic church will benefit the whole of society and help protect children around the world.

"What we hope is that what we are learning in the Catholic church can be of service wider in society, because incidences of the abuse of children occur tragically throughout society. That's not something which in anyway minimises or excuses what has been done dreadfully within the Catholic church, but it does mean that we are slowly coming into a position of being able to cooperate," he said.

The cost of the visit, which includes meeting the Queen in Edinburgh, and massive outdoor services in Glasgow, London and Birmingham for tens of thousands, is estimated to be around 20 million pounds. In addition the police estimate their costs could be between 1 and 1.5 million.

The government will pay an estimated 12 million, with the Catholic church paying for the rest through donations and the sale of official memorabilia.

The spiralling costs have angered those opposed to Pope Benedict, who argue he should be coming as part of a pastoral not a state visit.

At a public debate in London leading secularist and gay rights voices sparred with leading Catholics over the motion "The papal visit should not be a state visit".

Father Christopher Jamison from the group "Catholic Voices" argued that as the Pope had been invited by the British government and would be meeting the Queen, it is right that the country pay for part of the costs.

"We are not here to persuade you to like Pope Benedict. None of that matters. What matters is that this is a state visit of historic proportions. The British government has invited the Pope to the UK and done so for reasons of state," he said.

Peter Tatchell, gay and human rights campaigner, responded: "He's entitled to come here, the Catholic church should pay for him but we should not give him such an honour. I would want a state visit for Archbishop Desmond Tutu, but not for Pope Benedict XVI."

The meeting quickly turned rowdy and emotional as the audience jeered and cheered the opposing views.

Pope Benedict arrives in Edinburgh on Thursday (September 18) and will meet with the Queen in Holyrood Palace. He will conduct a large open air mass in Glasgow on Thursday afternoon before flying to London.

In the capital he will meet thousands of young people, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams and Prime Minister David Cameron. He'll lead an open air vigil in Hyde Park on Saturday (September 18) and a service in Birmingham's Cofton Park to beatify Cardinal John Newman, before flying back to Rome on Sunday (September 19).