British leaders join forces against Pope Benedict XVI
POPE Benedict was a surprise player in Britain's televised leadership debate but not in a way the pontiff would have enjoyed.
Gordon Brown and his two challengers for the prime ministership lined up to criticise the Pope and the Catholic Church on issues ranging from abortion and contraception to gay rights, embryo research and the covering-up of child abuse by priests.
The three party leaders were asked about the Pope during a section of the Sky TV debate that was devoted to foreign affairs, and their criticism of the church was the one area of virtually total consensus in their 90-minute debate.
No questions were asked about China, the Middle East, Iran, Russia or nuclear disarmament but Sky's debate organisers selected an audience member's question about the Pope's plans to make a state visit to Britain in September.
The questioner asked: "If you win the election, will you disassociate your party from the Pope's protection over many years of Catholic priests who were ultimately tried and convicted of child abuse, and from his fierce opposition to all contraception, embryonic stem cell research, (fertility) treatment for childless couples, gay equality and the routine use of condoms when HIV is at an all-time high?"
All three leaders said they welcomed the 83-year-old Pope's visit but that was the only good news they had for the church.
Mr Brown, the son of a Presbyterian minister, said the church had to make an open confession about child abuse and make amends to the victims.
"I've met some of the people who have rightly complained about the abuse that they were subject to when young, and it never leaves them," he said.
"They were abused, cruelly abused, by people in whom they placed their faith and trust, so the church has got to deal with these problems, and it's got to make sure that there is an open and clean confession about what has happened, and that we help those people who have been put into difficulty by this abuse."
Conservatives leader David Cameron agreed, saying: "I think the Catholic Church has got some very, very serious work to do to unearth and come to terms with some of the appalling things that have happened."
Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg said he was an atheist but his wife and three sons were Catholic "so I have a little bit of an insight into the immense feelings of anguish in the Catholic community. I think (many Catholics) want to see the Catholic Church express greater openness and repentance. You can't keep a lid on sin.
"I do welcome the Pope's visit, but I hope by the time he does visit, there is a greater recognition that there has been terrible, terrible suffering, there have been abusive relationships which have left immeasurable scars on individual people's lives and we need a process of openness and . . . healing."
Mr Cameron said he did not agree with the Pope on abortion, contraception and "the need to make advances in science".
"There are lots of areas I don't agree. I don't think that means you should stop someone visiting our country or condemn them."
Mr Brown said he disagreed with the church's positions on homosexuality, embryo research and contraception. But he said: "The Pope should come to Britain, we should have these debates and we should welcome all religions because bringing religions together is the key to making sure that we have a more peaceful world."