London: Pope Benedict reminded his Church on Friday that its first priority was to provide a safe environment for children as the pontiff was met by the first substantial protest of his delicate visit to Britain.
Several hundred people whistled and shouted "Pope must resign" and "shame" as the papal motorcade entered a Catholic school complex in Twickenham, southwest London.
They held placards reading "Hypocrisy and lies" and "Catholic paedophile cover up”.
The shouting of the protesters duelled with the singing of hymns from inside the school, where the pope held what was dubbed "the big assembly" of several thousand Catholic school children from throughout Britain.
Addressing teachers and administrators in the school`s chapel, the pope, who was likely to have heard the protesters as he entered, said Catholic schools had to provide "a safe environment for children and young people”.
He continued: "Our responsibility toward those entrusted to us for their Christian formation demands nothing less. Indeed, the life of faith can only be effectively nurtured when the prevailing atmosphere is one of respectful and affectionate trust."
British bishops have dealt with the problem of child sex abuse earlier, more quickly, and more decisively than in other countries such as Ireland or the United States.
"I pray that this may continue to be a hallmark of the Catholic schools in this country," the pope said during the visit, which tens of thousands of other British school children watched from the classrooms throughout the country.
The sex abuse scandal, in which priests who abused children were moved from parish to parish instead of being defrocked to turned over to police, has hounded Benedict`s five-year papacy even though most of the abuse took place decades ago.
"The Church`s handling of the abuse scandal is shocking because it shows the Church`s priorities are the other way around, protecting the perpetrators instead of the children," said one of the protesters, 38-year-old Ben Carey.
On Thursday, the pope told reporters aboard the plane from Rome that he was shocked by what he called "a perversion" of the priesthood and acknowledged that the Church had not been sufficiently vigilant and decisive in dealing with the scandal.
Advocates for victims have long been calling for Church leaders to assume more legal and moral responsibility for allowing the sexual abuse scandals to get out of hand in the United States and several countries in Europe.
Some have accused him of being part of a system that turned a blind eye to abuse for decades when he held other Church offices before his election.
The Catholic Church in Britain runs some 2,800 schools, including 22 universities and the pope defended the work of schools, which are attending by many non-Catholics.
One of the main themes so far of the pope`s trip, only the second by a pontiff in history, is for Britons to re-discover their Christian roots and to be aware of the threat of what he has called "aggressive secularism" that excludes God from the public arena.
Benedict has a delicate path to tread in England and Scotland in relations with the Anglican Church after his offer last October making it easier for disaffected Anglicans, unhappy over the ordination of women and gay bishops, to convert.
These relations could be thrown into sharp focus later on Friday when the pope is due to meet the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the head of the Church of England, the Anglican mother church, at Lambeth Palace in London.