The Pope on Thursday said priests who had abused vulnerable children in their care should be “excluded” from the Catholic Church which, he admitted, had not been “sufficiently vigilant”, as he arrived in Edinburgh at the start of a four-day visit to the United Kingdom with campaigners accusing the Vatican of “protecting” paedophile priests.

“We must exclude these people from the Church and prevent them from accessing young children,” he said adding that the Church was in a “moment of penance” over the abuse scandal.

Protesters, who included child abuse victims and their families, waved placards as the Pope's trademark white vehicle — the Popemobile — slowly drove through the streets of Edinburgh and he waved to the crowds along the route.

More and bigger protests are planned when Pope Benedict XVI arrives in London on Friday. He is also expected to meet a small group of abuse victims but no details have been made public.

This is the first-ever state visit by a Pope to Britain since England broke with Rome nearly 500 years ago, though his predecessor Pope John Paul II made a pastoral visit in 1982.

The Queen, who travelled to Edinburgh to receive him, called the visit an opportunity to “deepen the relationship” between Catholicism and the Churches of England and Scotland.

The Pope, while praising Britain for its tolerance, took a swipe at what he described as its “aggressive” secularism which, he said, did not tolerate traditional values.

Despite tens of thousands of people swho turned up to greet the 83-year-old Pontiff, public enthusiasm was said to be much less in evidence than during the previous Pope's visit which attracted some quarter of a million people.

The visit has been mired by controversies ranging from the abuse scandal to the Vatican's policies on birth control, gay rights and abortion. Questions have also been raised about an estimated £12 million of taxpayers' money being spent to host a religious leader. Hours before the visit, a senior aide to the Pope, Cardinal Walter Kasper, provoked fury after he likened Britain to a “Third World country”. He was dropped from the trip.

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