Northern Ireland

Vatican ambassador in warning over Pope visit protests

Francis Campbell in St Peter's Square, Rome.
Image caption Francis Campbell has played a key role in organising the Pope's visit to the UK.

The County Down-born UK ambassador to the Vatican has said people who plan to protest against the Pope's visit must remember their responsibilities.

A number of protests are planned by groups including Northern Ireland's Free Presbyterian Church.

Ambassador Francis Campbell said the right to protest was "at the heart of our democracy".

But he added that implicit in that right was a responsibility "to allow the other person to be heard".

The founder of the Free Presbyterian Church, the Reverend Ian Paisley (now Lord Bannside) is to lead a delegation of 60 people to hold a demonstration in Scotland.

Mr Campbell, who played a key role in organising the first papal visit to the UK in 28 years, said: "Protests and papal visits are not new - they were there in 1979, they were there in 1982.

"They will be there in 2010, but that right also comes with a responsibility."

The Rathfrliand native also played down reports that the visit has failed to attract much interest from Irish Catholics.

"First I would say that this is an ecclesiastical visit to Britain - the Churches of Scotland and England and Wales - so the fact that there is little interest or uptake from Ireland is not new.

"The visit of the Pope to Ireland in 1979 was different from the visit of the Pope to Britain in 1982," he argued.


In terms of the overall reaction from the UK's Catholic population, with negative press reports of unsold tickets for papal events, the ambassor said there could be a very different outcome from the one the media appear to expect.

"I think the exact same lead in issue happened with the visit to the United States and with Australia.

"I was present in Australia when he arrived and in fact, if anything, the Australian press was more vicious than the press lead in to his visit here.

"Actually, it resulted in 500,000 people on the streets of Sydney. It was the largest human event in Austrialian history. So, let's wait and see, let's see when it starts," he said.

However, Mr Campbell said the scandal surrounding the Vatican's handling of clerical child sex abuse cases was "a negative issue" and agreed it had clouded the visit.

"It is being dealt with...the Church has acknowledged it hasn't handled the allegations and cases correctly.

"But that has to be set against the other aspects of the visit which are very important."


The ambassador said he expected Pope Benedict to make a "substantial comment on the whole nature of abuse" during the UK visit.

He said the Pope had made similiar statements during the official visits to Malta, Australia and the United States.

He also said that speculation that the Pope would meet victims of clerical abuse during the visit to Scotland and England were a "matter for the Vatican" but added that there had been a pattern of such meetings during other papal tours.

Mr Campbell is the first Catholic to hold the post of UK ambassador to the Vatican since the Reformation.

He was the youngest of nearly 200 British ambassadors when he was appointed to the role at the age of 35.

Before his appointment, he was employed as a private secretary to the former prime minister Tony Blair.