EDINBURGH, Scotland – Pope Benedict XVI braved a chilly atmosphere Thursday in mostly secular Britain to issue his strongest comments yet on the sex abuse crisis, admitting that the Catholic Church had not acted decisively or quickly enough to remove priests who molested children.

Speaking to reporters traveling with him from Rome, Benedict said the church’s top priority now was to help abuse victims heal. But the comments failed to satisfy victims’ groups.

Benedict’s historic visit has been overshadowed by disgust over the abuse scandal and indifference in Britain, where Catholics are a minority, at 10 percent, and endured centuries of bloody persecution and discrimination until the early 1800s.

The trip is the first state visit by a pope to the U.K., and his meeting with Queen Elizabeth II was symbolically significant because of the historic divide between the officially Protestant nation and the Catholic Church.

Yet only 65,000 of the faithful had tickets to an open-air Mass at Bellahouston Park in Glasgow, compared with the 100,000 expected. The British media has been particularly hostile to the pope’s visit, noting its $18.7 million security cost to taxpayers at a time of austerity measures and job losses.

Still, a crowd of 125,000 in Edinburgh welcomed him warmly as his Popemobile paraded through the streets.

Later Thursday, tens of thousands waved flags and applauded as Benedict arrived for the late afternoon Mass in Glasgow.

Scottish singing sensation Susan Boyle warmed up the crowd as she prepared to fulfill a dream and sing before the pope.

The pope’s first meeting of the day was with Queen Elizabeth II, both the head of state and head of the Church of England, at The Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh.

The queen told Benedict that his visit reminded all Britons of their common Christian heritage and said she hoped relations between the Anglican Church and the Catholic Church would be deepened as a result.

About 80 people protested the pope’s visit, led by a Northern Ireland Protestant leader, the Rev. Ian Paisley, at the Magdalen Chapel where John Knox, the leader of the Scottish Reformation, preached.

“This visit should never had happened. We stand here against these abusers. This is a waste of taxpayers’ money,” Paisley said.

Benedict acknowledged the opposition in earlier comments to reporters, saying Britain had a “great history of anti-Catholicism. But it is also a country with a great history of tolerance.”

Asked about polls that suggest many Catholics had lost trust in the church as a result of the sex abuse scandals, Benedict said he was shocked and saddened by the scope of the abuse.

“It’s difficult to understand how a man who has said this could then fall into this perversion. It’s a great sadness,” Benedict said in Italian. “It’s also sad that the authority of the church wasn’t sufficiently vigilant, and not sufficiently quick or decisive to take necessary measures” to stop it.

He said victims were the church’s top priority as it tries to help them heal spiritually and psychologically.

“How can we repair, what can we do to help these people overcome this trauma, find their lives again and find again the trust in the message of Christ?”