EDINBURGH, Scotland (AP) " Pope Benedict XVI, beginning a controversial state visit to Britain, acknowledged Thursday that the Catholic Church failed to act decisively or quickly enough to deal with priests who rape and molest children and said the church's top priority now was to help the victims.
The pope's comments to reporters traveling with him from Rome marked his most thorough admission to date of church failures to deal with the sex abuse scandal. The issue has reignited with the recent revelations in Belgium of hundreds of new victims, at least 13 of whom committed suicide.
Benedict also said abusive priests must never have access to children, saying they suffered from an illness that mere "goodwill" couldn't cure.Read more: Protests Surround Pope's First State Visit to UK (ABC News) Papal visit stirs Scotland's Catholics despite gloom (CNN)
Benedict's four-day visit to Britain has been overshadowed by anger over the abuse scandal and marked by indifference in the highly secular country where Catholics are a small minority.
The pope's first meeting Thursday was with Queen Elizabeth II, both head of state and head of the Church of England, at a palace in Scotland. Benedict was greeted at the airport by the queen's husband, Prince Philip.
The pope answered questions, submitted in advance by journalists traveling with him to Britain, where anger about the abuse scandal remains high.
Protests are planned, "Pope Nope" T-shirts have been spotted around London and public discussions of the Roman Catholic Church's celibacy requirement for priests are being held.
Benedict acknowledged the opposition, saying Britain had a "great history of anti-Catholicism. But it is also a country with a great history of tolerance."RussiaToday
He was asked about Britain's history of anti-Catholic sentiment and polls that suggest that the faithful had lost trust in the church as a result of the sex abuse scandal. Benedict said he was shocked and saddened upon learning of the scope of the abuse, in part because priests take vows to be Christ's voice upon ordination.
He said he felt "sadness also that the church authority was not sufficiently vigilant and not sufficiently quick and decisive to take the necessary measures" to stop the abuse and prevent it from occurring again. The pope said the victims were the church's top priority now.
He said he expected a warm welcome from Catholics and other believers and "mutual respect and tolerance" among those with anti-Catholic sentiments.
"I go forward with much courage and joy," he said.
Thousands of tickets to papal events remain unclaimed in an increasingly secular country even as many of the faithful have expressed joy about his imminent arrival.
The trip is the first state visit by a pope to the U.K., and his meeting with the queen is symbolically significant because of the historic divide between the officially Protestant nation and the Catholic Church.
The queen is head of the Church of England, which split acrimoniously from Rome in the 16th century, a division followed by centuries of anti-Catholic sentiment. The visit also coincides with the 450th anniversary of the Reformation in Scotland.
The last papal visit to Britain was by John Paul II in 1982. Benedict's trip to Britain is a state visit because he was invited by the monarch.
After meeting the queen at The Palace of Holyrood House, the pope will take part in a parade through the center of Edinburgh, where police expect up to 100,000 well-wishers to line the streets. The Scottish government plans to fly the Vatican City flag at its headquarters to mark the historic visit.
The Catholic Church has been rocked by a series of sex abuse scandals, from covered-up cases in Boston to the report in Belgium this week of hundreds of victims' harrowing accounts of molestation. The pope has been criticized for his response to the crisis and the fallout from the scandal appears to have dampened enthusiasm for his visit.
There is also strong opposition to Benedict's hard line against homosexuality, abortion and using condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS.
Cardinal Keith O'Brien, leader of Scotland's minority Catholics, admitted that the damage caused by the sex scandals has been considerable.
"(The abuse cases) have caused terrible injury to children and young adults, and equally horrible have been the cover-ups, but I think the pope has put strong steps to prevent it from happening," he said in a statement. "Nobody loses face by saying 'sorry' and 'I'm trying to do better.'"
The start of the trip risked being overshadowed by remarks by one of the pope's advisers, German Cardinal Walter Kasper, who compared arriving in multicultural London to landing "in a Third World country." He also told a German magazine that an "aggressive atheism" was spreading in Britain.
The British media, expressing outrage, cited the remarks as the latest example of a gaffe-prone papacy. Kasper's office later said he would not be coming to the U.K. due to illness.
Only 65,000 of the faithful are expected to attend an open air Mass at Bellahouston Park in Glasgow later Thursday, compared to the 100,000 previously expected. At the Mass the pope will be serenaded by Susan Boyle, the "Britain's Got Talent" reality show star who shot to global fame last year.
The bookish pontiff lacks the charisma of his predecessor John Paul II, who pulled in a crowd of 250,000 for Mass at the same Glasgow park.
A beatification event will follow on Sunday for Cardinal John Newman in Birmingham, which will see the 19th-century English philosopher take a step on his way to sainthood.
The estimated 12-million-pound ($18.6-million) cost of the visit, not including security, has been attacked by critics at a time when Britain faces deep budget cuts.
Security for Thursday's events in Scotland alone will cost 1 million pound ($1.55 million), according to the U.K. government. The pope will travel from Edinburgh to Glasgow in a 26-car convoy. More than 1,000 police officers will be deployed in Glasgow and 600 in Edinburgh, and they will be backed up by armed response units.
A number of demonstrations are expected in Edinburgh, including 70 protesters led by a Northern Ireland Protestant leader, the Rev. Ian Paisley, at the Magdalen Chapel, where John Knox, the leader of the Scottish Reformation, preached.
"We are championing those who have been very, very badly treated by these priests of Rome," Paisley said of the sex abuse scandals.
While some may have been put off by the 20-pound ($31) suggested donation for a ticket to Bellahouston to cover transportation costs, detractors such as the Humanist Society of Scotland believe people are indifferent to the papal visit because of the church scandals and growing secularism.
There are about 850,000 Catholics in Scotland, according to the 2001 U.K. Census, but 27 percent of Scots " about 1.5 million " did not register a religion or said they were atheists.
"We believe that the vast majority of people do not approve of this visit, or the state funding of it," said Tim Maguire of the Humanist Society. "Politicians pay too much heed to the religious vote when in fact the majority is nonreligious."
His organization has placed billboards along the route the pope will take between Edinburgh and Glasgow that read: "Two million Scots are good without God."
Yet at St. Mary's Cathedral in Edinburgh, some worshippers eagerly prepared for the pope's arrival.
"It is wonderful that the Holy Father is coming to Scotland and I prayed today for good weather," said Mary McManus, 78.
James Ferguson, 72, a retired electrician, acknowledged that the church sex abuse scandals were "sickening."
"(But) what's worse is that opponents of the church have made hay with them and the church's response to them," he said. "In some ways, we are being made to feel foolish about being Catholic and so I hope this visit will make us proud."
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.