Britain apologises to Pope as condom 'joke' falls flat
WITH BRITAIN preparing to host its first papal visit in 28 years, Whitehall officials were all too aware of the significance of the event.
The trip by Pope Benedict XVI could not have come at a more difficult time for a Catholic Church -- embroiled in a wide-reaching child abuse scandal and a theological row with the Church of England.
The need for England to handle the pontiff's stay with the greatest sensitivity could not have been more obvious.
A committee of civil servants, called the Government's Papal Visit Team, was established to ensure that the trip goes smoothly.
Yet last night that decision had backfired spectacularly, with the emergence of an official document circulated around Whitehall and leaked to the media which mocked the Pope himself and ridiculed the church.
The Foreign Office was forced to make the most fulsome of apologies, while a senior civil servant has been transferred to other duties.
It is not hard to see why.
Among the proposals put forward by members of the Papal Visit Team during a "brainstorming" session and included in the document, headed "The ideal visit would see?...", were plans for the Pope to open an abortion ward and bless a gay marriage.
They also thought he might, while here in September, launch a range of "Benedict" condoms and that he should drop the Church's opposition to homosexual couples being able to adopt.
Many of the ideas on the list ridicule the Catholic Church's teachings, including its opposition to abortion, homosexual behaviour and contraception -- and appear to be provocative rather than a serious attempt to plan the Pope's itinerary.
The document was then sent out with a note from a Foreign Office civil servant admitting that some of the plans were "far-fetched".
Senior civil servants who saw the memo were furious over its content and swiftly conducted an investigation into how such ideas came to be aired and why they were recorded in a memo and circulated at senior levels.
The exercise appears to have been intended to ensure a high impact for the papal visit and to identify areas such as development and climate change on which the Government and the Vatican could co-operate, but the list of ideas has caused offence.
Catholic Bishop of Nottingham, the Rev Malcolm McMahon, expressed dismay that such proposals would be included in a Government document. "This is appalling. You don't invite someone to your country and then disrespect them in this way. It's outlandish and outrageous."
Further suggestions on the "ideal visit" list are that the Pope should reverse the Church's "policy on women bishops/ordain woman" and that the Vatican should "sponsor a network of Aids clinics".
Other recommendations include persuading the Pope to "spend night in council flat in Bradford" and "do forward rolls with children to promote healthy living".
Another of the three background documents, titled "Papal Visit Stakeholders", lists figures that the officials consider significant to the tour, and ranks them in order of how "influential" and "positive" each one is perceived to be. The Queen, David Cameron and Tony Blair are all ranked as highly influential and positive. It rates singer Susan Boyle as more influential than the Archbishop of Westminster.
Wayne Rooney, the footballer, who was married in a Catholic church, is considered to be a negative influence, as are Madonna, the singer, and Richard Dawkins, the prominent atheist professor. "Pro-choice groups", homosexual pressure groups and the National Secular Society are all viewed as negative.