Thousands of protesters opposed to Pope Benedict XVI and his state visit to Britain marched through London today, slamming the Church over sex abuse, gay rights and a range of other issues.

A coalition of demonstrators united under the "Protest The Pope" banner started marching at the edge of Hyde Park, where the pontiff was to later hold an open-air prayer vigil for an estimated 80,000 Roman Catholics.

An early police estimate said up to 3,000 people were at the rally, while organisers claimed up to 10,000 took part. It is the biggest demonstration during the pope's four-day state visit to Britain.

With drums and whistles sounding, demonstrators marched through central London to the Downing Street residence of Prime Minister David Cameron.

Some were dressed in priest outfits, while others blew up condoms into balloons and one woman wore blown-up condoms as earrings.

Many protesters wore homemade pink mitres -- the pope's hat -- bearing slogans condemning his stance on human rights and child abuse by Catholic priests.

They chanted "Shame on the pope" and "Protect the children, not the pope".

"We want to send a message to the pope that many British people disagree with all or part of his teaching, on women rights, gay equality and the use of condoms," one of the march's organisers, rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, told AFP.

"We are a mix of very different people, Catholics and non-Catholics, we are united in protesting againt the pope's visit. He shouldn't be honoured by a state visit," he added.

Pope Benedict today expressed his "deep sorrow" for the "immense suffering" of children sexually abused by Catholic clerics and later held a private meeting with victims.

Demonstrator Barbara Dorris, from St. Louis in the United States, held a banner with a photograph of herself aged seven at Holy Communion. She said she was abused at that age by a priest.

"We've heard apologies but he hasn't taken any action. He has apologised time and time again but he hasn't done anything," she said.

Sue Cox, 63, addressed the rally, saying she was abused by a priest in her home aged 10, and again at 13.

"Just to say sorry is not adequate," she told AFP.

"They need to open their secret files to the authorities, to independent scrutiny, and start making amends to all those people they've damaged."

The rally was organised by a mix of groups, including the British Humanist Association (BHA) and the National Secular Society.

BHA chief executive Andrew Copson told AFP: "It's fine for the pope to come here as a religious leader. It's the fact that it's a state visit that we primarily oppose."

Benedict is the first Pope to make a state visit -- at the invitation of the monarch -- to Britain.

Catholic Women's Ordination organiser Pat Brown said: "We want a more inclusive church, including divorced people, gays and women priests."

Adele MacDonald-Hewson, 62, called for the Catholic Church to open its doors to women priests. "I think we should have a woman for pope," she said.

The Vatican said it was "neither surprised nor shocked" by the demo.

"We know there are groups who criticise the Pope and the Vatican, and they have the right to voice their disagreement," spokesman Federico Lombardi said.

He stressed that "a big part of the population is very happy to see the Pope".

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