LISBON (AFP) – A penitent Pope Benedict XVI referred to the paedophile priest scandal rocking the Catholic Church as he began a four-day trip to Portugal Tuesday, saying the Church's "greatest persecution" came from its own "sin".
"Today the greatest persecution of the Church does not come from outside, but from the sin inside the Church itself," the pope told journalists aboard his plane before his arrival in Lisbon.
The 83-year-old pontiff, who met alleged victims of priestly sex abuse during a visit to Malta last month, said the Church's forgiveness could not replace the need for justice.
|Pope Benedict XVI reviews the honour guard upon his arrival at Lisbon airport. AFP photo|
He said the Church had a "profound need" to "learn forgiveness and also the necessity of justice," underlining that "forgiveness does not replace justice."
The comments were the strongest yet on the issue from Benedict, whose five-year-old papacy has been rocked by allegations that the Vatican for years protected paedophile priests from prosecution in several European countries and in the United States.
The months-long scandal, which has seen bishops offer their resignation in Ireland and Germany, has overshadowed preparations for his four-day visit to overwhelmingly Catholic Portugal.
Wearing an ivory robe with a golden crucifix around his neck, a tired-looking Benedict walked gingerly down the gangway steps to be met by Portugal's President Anibal Cavaco Silva and his wife Maria.
The president welcomed the pope to a "free and plural Portugal" whose people, he said, have "a calling to recognise the value of diversity".
The centre-right president is due to decide next week whether to sign into law a bill passed by parliament which would make Portugal the sixth country to allow same-sex marriage.
Church authorities in Portugal said Benedict was likely to call on Portugal to uphold Christian values and urge solidarity across Europe's struggling economies.
"I come as a pilgrim to Our Lady of Fatima," the pope said in his speech on the airport tarmac.
Tens of thousands of festive Portuguese lined the leafy suburbs of Lisbon as Benedict took an eight-kilometre (five mile) ride aboard his white bullet-proof popemobile to the papal nunciature.
Pilgrims waved yellow and white Vatican flags and the red and green colours of Portugal as the pope passed by, raising his hands in acknowledgement.
"Viva o Papa," the crowd chanted as he arrived at the nunciature and cautiously climbed down from the vehicle, before raising his arms in greeting.
Later Tuesday, Benedict is to pray in the chapel at the 16th century Jeronimos monastery in Lisbon, the burial site of the great Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama renowned for its religious carvings which have made it a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
He was also to pay a brief courtesy visit to the presidential Belem palace.
In the evening, the Portuguese Church expects up to 160,000 pilgrims to attend an open-air mass with Benedict in the historic Terreiro do Paco square on the banks of the Tagus.
"The pope will encourage institutions to lend a hand and show solidarity during difficult times," said Carlos Azevedo, the auxiliary bishop of Lisbon and the visit's chief organiser.
"Europe needs to be awoken, there is a lack of strong values. If there was greater ethical conscience, we would not have arrived at the current economic disaster."
Tuesday evening's mass is one of three giant gatherings scheduled for the visit, the "heart" of which, according to the Vatican, will be his stop in Fatima, the site where three shepherd children reported seeing visions of the Virgin Mary in 1917.
The pope's visit to the sanctuary town comes exactly 10 years after his predecessor John Paul II beatified two of the children at the site, bringing them one step from sainthood.
A third open-air mass is to be held in the northern city of Oporto on Friday, shortly before the pope returns to Rome.