Image: Pope delivers Mass in Scotland
Peter Macdiarmid  /  Getty Images
Pope Benedict XVI celebrates Mass at Bellahouston Park in Glasgow, Scotland, on Thursday.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 9/16/2010 3:38:07 PM ET 2010-09-16T19:38:07

Pope Benedict started a trip to Britain on Thursday with some of the clearest criticism yet of his Church's handling of its sexual abuse crisis and urged the country to beware of "aggressive secularism."

Some 125,000 people, including a small number of protesters, watched the 83-year-old pope as he was driven through the Scottish capital Edinburgh wearing a green plaid scarf.

Hours before landing, he told reporters aboard the plane taking him to Scotland for a four-day trip to Britain that he was shocked by what he called "a perversion" of the priesthood.

"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.

Advocates for victims have long been calling for Church leaders to assume more legal and moral responsibility for allowing the sexual abuse scandals to get out of hand in the United States and several countries in Europe.

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

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These relations could be thrown into sharp focus on Friday when the pope is due to meet the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the head of the Church of England, the Anglican mother church, at Lambeth Palace, in London.

'Aggressive secularism'
On Thursday, after the pope was greeted by Queen Elizabeth — titular head of the Church of England founded when Henry VIII broke with Rome in 1534 — he got to the heart of his message in his first speech on British soil as Roman Catholic leader.

He spoke of the "deep Christian roots that are present in every layer of British life."

Groups that plan to protest against the pope's trip, only the second in history, include atheists, secular organizations, and those who want the pope to be held legally responsible for the sexual abuse scandals.

The pope, out to win over one of Europe's most secular countries, reminded Britons to beware of extremism, saying that the attempt by totalitarian regimes in the 20th century to eliminate God should provide "sobering lessons" on tolerance.

"Today, the United Kingdom strives to be a modern and multicultural society. In this challenging enterprise, may it always maintain its respect for those traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate," he said.

The National Secular Society criticized the pope, saying his comments about British society were wrong.

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"The secular identity of the British people is not something to criticize, but to celebrate. We have rejected dogmatic religion devoid of compassion," it said in a statement, adding that the Church discriminates against gays and women.

Later, at an open-air mass in nearby Glasgow, during which TV show "Britain's Got Talent" singing sensation Susan Boyle sang, the pope told the 65,000 people attending that followers should not be afraid to promote their faith.

"There are some who now seek to exclude religious belief from public discourse, to privatize it or even to paint it as a threat to equality and liberty," he said during his homily.

He is expected to return to the theme during a speech to civic leaders at Westminster Hall on Friday.

The German pope spoke glowingly of Britain's history and, significantly because of his own background, praised its people for standing up to the "Nazi tyranny" that was wreaked on the country by his own people in World War Two.

Slideshow: Pageantry, controversy: Pope visits Britain (on this page)

The Queen also spoke of the common Christian heritage that Anglicans and Catholics shared, and of their common belief that religion should never be allowed to justify violence and that dialogue could transcend "old suspicions."

She told Benedict that his visit reminded all Britons of their common Christian heritage and said she hoped relations between the Anglican Church and the Catholic Church would be deepened as a result.

She also praised the Catholic Church's "special contribution" to helping the poorest and most vulnerable people around the world.

"We know from experience that through committed dialogue, old suspicions can be transcended and a greater mutual trust encouraged," she said. "We hold that freedom to worship is at the core of our tolerant and democratic society."

Outside, around 150 protesters waved gay rainbow flags and banners saying "Pope opposition to condoms kills people" and "Stop protecting pedophile priests."

The bookish Benedict lacks the charisma of his predecessor John Paul II, who pulled in a crowd of 250,000 for Mass at the same Glasgow park.

The Humanist Society of Scotland placed billboards between Edinburgh and Glasgow that read: "Two million Scots are good without God." It also took exception to the pope's comment Thursday about the Nazis.

"The notion that it was the atheism of Nazis that led to their extremist and hateful views or that somehow fuels intolerance in Britain today is a terrible libel against those who do not believe in God," the group said.

The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, responded that Benedict — who was forced to become part of the Hitler Youth — chose his words wisely. "You can agree or not, but I think the pope knows very well what the Nazi ideology was," Lombardi said.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Queen welcomes pope in Scotland

  1. Transcript of: Queen welcomes pope in Scotland

    MEREDITH VIEIRA, co-host: But let us begin with Pope Benedict 's controversial and historical four- day trip to the United Kingdom . NBC 's Stephanie Gosk is in Edinburgh , Scotland with that. Stephanie , good morning to you.

    STEPHANIE GOSK reporting: Good morning, Meredith . Well, the pope arrived here in Edinburgh this morning on board an Alitalia jet with the call sign Shepherd One. On the flight over, he addressed the priest abuse scandal with reporters. He said that the Catholic Church didn't act fast enough or decisively enough. And that's just one of many controversial issues he's going to have to deal with in his four- day trip here. It's the first official state visit by a pope to Britain in nearly 500 years. Greeted by Prince Philip and Scottish clergy, he made his way along Edinburgh 's Royal Mile to Hollyrood Palace to be received by the queen. The pope's meeting with the queen is a rare event, and this exchange of gifts a gesture that Britain 's Catholics hope will mend a rift that began with King Henry VIII in the 16th century .

    GOSK: Henry VIII went on to marry five more wives and demolished and sold off Catholic monasteries in an ongoing feud with the Vatican that led to a permanent split from the church in Rome .

    Dr. LUCY WORSLEY (Historian): For hundreds of years, it was illegal to be a Catholic in this country, and he's been persona non grata really since the 16th century . So it's a sort of -- it's a healing. He's back again.

    GOSK: The faithful in Scotland are flocking to catch a glimpse of Pope Benedict in the bulletproof popemobile, like these Catholic schoolkids. How fast does it go?

    Unidentified Boy #1: Normally it goes 150 miles an hour.

    GOSK: It goes 150 -- the popemobile goes 150 miles an hour?

    Group of children: Yes.

    GOSK: No, it doesn't.

    Unidentified Boy #2: Just like there's -- just in case there's something serious that happens.

    GOSK: But not everyone is welcoming. Some are getting ready for a confrontation.

    Unidentified Man #1: We are urging the pope to open the Vatican secret sex files.

    GOSK: As elsewhere in the Catholic world , there is anger about the lingering sex abuse scandal that has rocked the church for nearly a decade.

    Unidentified Man #2: The church has made a mess of its response to incidences of child abuse.

    GOSK: And there is resentment of the pope's inflexibility on the issue of women priests.

    Archbishop VINCENT NICHOLS: Oh, there's always controversy about papal visits, and then when he arrives the sun comes out and those clouds disperse and people really take to him.

    GOSK: Scottish singing sensation Susan Boyle can't wait to meet the pope tonight. Her Catholic faith has carried her though difficult times, she says, and she's ready to give Pope Benedict the performance of her life.

    Ms. SUSAN BOYLE: To sing for his holiness is a dream beyond anyone's imagination. I'll probably be feeling excited. I'm very honored to be here and I'm very humble.

    GOSK: The trip began with even more controversy. One of the pope's chief aides, Cardinal Walter Kasper , gave an interview with a German magazine where he compared landing in London's Heathrow Airport to landing in a third world country. A lot of people were very offended by those comments. Late last night the cardinal pulled out of the trip. The Vatican says that he isn't

Photos: Pope Benedict XVI visits the United Kingdom

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  1. Pope Benedict XVI, right, is seen next to his personal secretary, father Gaenswein George, as they arrive at the Ciampino airport in Rome on Sunday, Sept. 19, after a four-day visit to England and Scotland. (Alessandro Bianchi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Pope Benedict XVI leaves Oscott College seminary in Birmingham, England, Sept. 19. (Pool via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Pope Benedict XVI addresses a mass to beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman, pictured in the background, in Birmingham, England, on Sept. 19. Pope Benedict XVI's state visit to Britain has been a "spiritual success", his spokesman said Sunday. (Adrian Dennis / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A girl takes holy communion as Pope Benedict XVI takes the beatification mass of Cardinal Newman at Cofton Park on Sept. 19, in Birmingham, England. On the last day of Pope Benedict XVI's state visit, the Pontiff is beatifying Cardinal Newman in front of over 60,000 faithful. His Holiness also met The Queen as well as political and religious representatives during the four day visit. (Christopher Furlong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Pilgrims await the arrival of Pope Benedict XVI in Cofton Park, Birmingham, England, Sept. 19. (Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. People crowd Hyde Park during a prayer vigil led by Pope Benedict XVI in London, Sept. 18. (Gregorio Borgia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Pope Benedict XVI chats with Catholic youth outside Westminster Cathedral in central London on Sept. 18. Pope Benedict apologised to victims of sexual abuse on Saturday, saying paedophile priests had brought "shame and humiliation" on him and the entire Roman Catholic Church. (Max Rossi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Pope Benedict XVI arrives for a celebration of Catholic education at St Mary's University College, Twickenham, in SW LondonFriday. The pope is on a four day visit to the United Kingdom. (Claudio Onorati / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Pope Benedict XVI arrives for a service of prayer at St Mary's University College Chapel during day two of his four day state visit at Twickenham on Friday in London, England. (Wpa Pool / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Pope Benedict XVI meets Britain's Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, during a meeting of religious leaders at St Mary's University College, in Twickenham, south-west London on Friday. (Toby Melville / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Police patrol outside the Houses of Parliament ahead of the visit by Pope Benedict XVI, where he will give an address to the Civil Society, Westminster Hall in the Palace of Westminster on Friday in London. (Matt Cardy / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Pilgrims depart from buses parked near Bellahouston Park, Glasgow, prior to the papal mass to be celebrated there Thursday afternoon. (Chris Clark / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Supporters gather ahead of the arrival of Benedict for the papal mass at Bellahouston Park on Thursday. (Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Queen Elizabeth II's husband, Prince Philip, greets Pope Benedict XVI Thursday as he arrives in Scotland to begin a four-day trip. The trip is the first to the U.K. by a Pontiff since John Paul II in 1982, and the first to be designated a state visit as Queen invited him, rather than the church. (Andrew Milligan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. The pope inspects a guard of honour at Edinburgh Airport on Thursday. (Pool / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Crowds watch as the Popemobile makes its way along Edinburgh's Princes Street on Thursday. (Derek Blair / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Pilgrims display their souvenir scarves in Bellahouston Park in Glasgow, Scotland, on Thursday ahead of a celebration of mass slated for later in the day. (Leon Neal / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Pope Benedict XVI, right on stage, Britain's Prince Philip, left, and Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, center, inspect an honor guard of members of the Royal Company of Archers and members of the Royal Regiment of Scotland Band as the Pope arrives at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, in Edinburgh on Thursday. (Lefteris Pitarakis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. The pope's controversial yet historic state trip to the United Kingdom has been overshadowed by the sex abuse scandals which have shaken confidence in the Roman Catholic Church. (Lefteris Pitarakis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip walk with the pope to the Morning Drawing Room in the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen's official residence in Scotland on Thursday. (Dan Kitwood / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Ulster Protestant leader Rev. Ian Paisley, center, is seen at a protest at Magdalen Chapel in Edinburgh as the pope arrives at the city. (Jon Super / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A car drives past an billboard ahead of the pope's visit. (Paul Ellis / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A double-decker bus on London's Oxford St. carries a poster urging the pope to ordain women as priests. (Horacio Villalobos / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Pope Benedict XVI arrives for mass at Bellahouston Park in Glasgow, Scotland, Thursday. (Nigel Roddis / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Pope Benedict XVI's kisses a baby as he arrives for mass at Bellahouston Park in Glasgow, Scotland, Thursday. (Nigel Roddis / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Pope Benedict XVI conducts Mass at Bellahouston Park on Thursday, Sept. 16 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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