Catholic Church heads not vigilant over sex abuse - Pope

by Philip Pullella and Avril Ormsby, Reuters

Posted at Sep 16 2010 06:39 PM | Updated as of Sep 17 2010 02:39 AM

EDINBURGH, Scotland - Pope Benedict criticised Catholic church leaders on Thursday as "insufficiently vigilant" during decades of sexual abuse of children as he arrived in Britain to win over one of Europe's most secular countries.

His four-day visit comes at a time when the Catholic church is struggling with a global child sex-abuse scandal.

In some of his clearest remarks on the scandal, he told reporters aboard the plane taking him to Scotland that he was shocked by what he called "a perversion" of the priesthood.

"These revelations were a shock for me, a great sadness. It is difficult to understand how this perversion of the priestly ministry was possible," he said.

"It is also a great sadness that the authority of the church was not sufficiently vigilant and not sufficiently quick and decisive in taking the necessary measures," he added.

The visit was also overshadowed by remarks made the pope's senior aide on the eve of the trip likening England to a Third World country.

Pope Benedict has a delicate path to tread in England and Scotland in relations with the Church of England after his offer last October making it easier for disaffected Anglicans, unhappy over women ordination and gay bishops, to convert.

Local Catholics, while acknowledging Pope Benedict lacks the charisma of his predecessor Pope John Paul, who attracted hundreds of thousands during his pastoral visit in 1982, remain positive about the trip.

"I think he is going to have a good go at winning over Britain," Jack Valero, coordinator for the pro-Church group Catholic Voices, told Reuters.

The pope will receive a state welcome from Queen Elizabeth after he flies into the Scottish capital Edinburgh and later presides at an open-air Mass in nearby Glasgow in the afternoon.

But thousands of seats remain unsold, with police suggesting a park venue for the Glasgow Mass could be a third empty.

Cardinal comments

Yet, many locals said they were excited about the visit.

"I think it's a privilege that the Pope is in Scotland," said Teresia McFarlene, 65, a former window dresser, as she waited for the Pope to arrive in central Edinburgh.

Frances, a 70-year-old former voluntary worker, said the Church should have done more over child abuse accusations. "It has come through schisms in the past, it's being attacked now but it will not go under," she said.

The Vatican played down the Third World comments by Cardinal Walter Kasper to a German magazine, in which he also suggested England was home to aggressive atheists.

Kasper, who recently retired as head of the Congregation for Christian Unity -- the Vatican department that oversees dialogue with Anglicans -- had been due to accompany the pope but a Vatican spokesman said he would miss it for health reasons.

Writing by Avril Ormsby and Maria Golovnina