LONDON — Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in central London on Saturday, angered by the Pope’s response to the child abuse scandal, his homophobic comments about gay relationships and his claims that condoms spread rather than prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS.
The march proceeded from Hyde Park Corner through central London to Whitehall where a rally was held with speakers including gay rights activist Peter Tatchell.
Organizers believe that up to 20,000 activists took part in the demonstration, the biggest protest of Benedict XVI’s 5-year papacy.
Earlier in the day, the Pope met with and apologized to five people — four women and a man from Scotland, England and Wales — who were molested by priests as children in his latest effort to defuse the sex abuse crisis shaking the Roman Catholic Church.
The apologies did little to stem the anger towards the Pope from demonstrators, most of whom are also galvanized by his views on issues such as homosexuality and condoms, as well as the fact the visit he is visiting as a head of state rather than a religious leader.
Protesters unfurled banners with statements including: “Pope’s opposition to condoms kills people”, “Keep the Pope out of women’s’ reproductive rights” and “F*CK the Pope … But wear a condom”.
Others simply called the Pope a “bigot” or a “homophobe.”
“We profoundly disagree with the Pope’s opposition to women’s rights, gay equality and the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV,” Tatchell told the BBC.
“This is not an attack on Catholic people or the Catholic faith. We are critical of certain policies of the Pope,” said Tatchell. “When he says a husband must not use a condom to protect his wife from infection – even if he has HIV – that’s irresponsible. And when he says that all gay people possess a tendency towards evil, that flies in the face of the Christian gospel of love and compassion.”
Later Saturday, though, an estimated 80,000 people massed in Hyde Park cheering the pope as he celebrated an evening vigil.
On Friday, London police arrested six men on suspicion “of the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism” in an alleged plot against the Pope.
Scotland Yard said Saturday their investigation had not turned up anything in the way of weapons or explosives, and later said all of the men had been released by early Sunday.