POPE Benedict XVI said today he could understand why people were turning their back on the Catholic Church after the recent sex abuse scandals, as he arrived for his first state visit to Germany.
At the start of a four-day trip to his homeland, the pontiff also took a conciliatory tone with protesters who planned to rally in the free-wheeling, overwhelmingly Protestant or secular German capital as long as they were “civil”.
“I can understand that in the face of such reports, people, especially those close to victims, would say ‘this isn’t my Church anymore’,” the 84-year-old told reporters on his plane from Rome.
Enduring outrage over widespread molestation of children by Catholic clergy over several decades has threatened to cloud the pope’s visit, where his election six years ago met with an outpouring of joy.
Organisers say at least 20,000 demonstrators, including gays, feminists, atheists, abuse survivors and other papal opponents, will gather in Berlin.
“Our alliance is not protesting against faith but rather calls on Catholics to demonstrate against the Church’s stances,” said Pascal Ferror, coordinator of a collective called “The Pope Is Coming”.
Benedict said that such protests were “normal in a free society marked by strong secularism”.
“One can’t object” to such protests, he added. “I respect those who speak out.”
The leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics has a gruelling schedule while in Germany, combining official talks in Berlin with outreach to the faithful, many of whom have grown alienated during his six-year-old papacy.
The pontiff will hold his first-ever speech before a national parliament in the afternoon before addressing a capacity crowd of 70,000 at the historic Olympic Stadium.
He will also visit Erfurt in former communist East Germany and predominantly Catholic Freiburg in the southwest, addressing an estimated total of 260,000 people in his mother tongue before departing on Sunday.
But as if to underline the ambivalence in his native country, dozens of leftist deputies vowed to boycott the pontiff’s speech to parliament, while throngs of demonstrators rally a few blocks away behind police barricades.
“It will do the pope good to come to Berlin and sense what reality is in the year 2011,” said the co-leader of the opposition Greens, Claudia Roth, amid accusations the address will undermine the separation of Church and state.
Critics say Ratzinger, known as “God’s Rottweiler” while head of the Vatican’s powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is out of touch with modern life with his rigorous dogma on artificial contraception, homosexuality and the role of women in the Church.
Security units were enforcing a lockdown near the Bundestag parliament building, as well as in the largely Muslim neighbourhood around the apostolic nunciature, the Vatican embassy, where he will spend the night.
Catholic leaders hope to avert the disruption seen last month in Spain during World Youth Day celebrations, when thousands marched against the pope, sparking a police crackdown, or during a 1996 trip when John Paul II in his popemobile encountered paint bombs and a female streaker in Berlin.
Benedict’s papacy has been marred by revelations last year of rampant abuse by German priests over several decades, which helped drive more than 181,000 from the Church – 57,000 more than in 2009.
The pope said today that there were various factors at play.
“There are many reasons for people leaving the Church in the context of a secular society. Leaving the Church is generally the final step along a long path of distancing oneself from the Church,” he told journalists.
The Vatican has indicated it is likely the pontiff will meet with sexual abuse victims, as he did on trips to Britain and Malta.
Polls show that an overwhelming majority of Germans are largely indifferent to “their” pope’s arrival.
Germany’s Christians are split down the middle between Catholics and Lutherans, each with about one-third of the population in the country that was the cradle of the Reformation.
The pope will give 18 sermons and speeches during his 21st trip abroad, his third to Germany following World Youth Day in Cologne in 2005 and a private visit to his native Bavaria in 2006.