Pope Francis marked the first papal visit to Ireland in 39 years by acknowledging that the failure of Church authorities to adequately address “repugnant” clerical child abuse crimes there remains a source of shame for the Catholic community.
Francis arrived on Saturday for a highly charged visit to a society transformed since more than three-quarters of the population flocked to see Pope John Paul II in 1979 and beset by the kind of abuse scandals that have once more mired the Catholic Church in crisis.
“I cannot fail to acknowledge the grave scandal caused in Ireland by the abuse of young people by members of the Church charged with responsibility for their protection and education,” Francis told a state reception attended by some abuse survivors.
“The failure of ecclesiastical authorities – bishops, religious superiors, priests and others – adequately to address these repugnant crimes has rightly given rise to outrage and remains a source of pain and shame for the Catholic community.”
One of the abuse survivors present, Colm O’Gorman, called the pope’s remarks a staggering effort at deflection that failed to acknowledge the Vatican’s role in covering up the crimes.
“It was quite shocking actually in some ways,” O’Gorman, a leading abuse campaigner, told national broadcaster RTE.
Today, Ireland is no longer the staunchly Catholic country it was in 1979 when divorce and contraception were illegal and over the past three years, voters have approved abortion and gay marriage in referendums, defying the will of the Church.
Francis asked that Ireland would not forget “the powerful strains of the Christian message” that have sustained it in the past, and can continue to do so in the future.
Numbers lining the streets or joining the pope in prayer are expected to be about a quarter of the 2.7 million who greeted John Paul II, marking how the rock that was once Irish Catholicism has eroded since child abuse cases came to light in the 1990s.
Francis began the two-day trip by visiting Irish President Michael D. Higgins’ who said he raised with the pope the immense suffering caused by child sex abuse and anger which had been conveyed to him at what was perceived to be the impunity enjoyed by those responsible.
The pope will travel on Sunday to Knock, a small western village steeped in Catholicism that welcomes 1.5 million pilgrims a year, before finishing his trip by saying mass in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, where a large cross erected for the 1979 visit still dominates the skyline.
The 500,000 tickets issued for the mass were quickly snapped up, although an unknown number have been booked by a boycott group called “Say Nope To The Pope” which encouraged protesters to order tickets and not use them.
Still, pictures of the pope were on the front pages of every newspaper on Saturday and there was excitement among some on Dublin’s streets as the city centre prepared to go on lockdown.
“I’m delighted he is coming, I think it makes a great change from the last few years of bad news for the Church,” said Dubliner Kyle O’Sullivan.
Protests are also planned. Large images of abuse victims and the hashtag #Stand4Truth – promoting a gathering of survivors and supporters elsewhere in Dublin during Sunday’s mass – were projected onto some of the city’s most recognised buildings on Friday night, including Dublin’s Pro Cathedral.
Gay rights activists hung rainbow umbrellas from a nearby bridge while a silent vigil will be held on Sunday at the site of a former Church-run home for unwed mothers where an unmarked grave with the remains of hundreds of babies was found in 2014.
The Vatican has said Francis will meet Irish victims of clergy sexual abuse, but the pope is also be under pressure to more fully address the scandals that have led to the Church’s worst credibility crisis in more than 15 years.
The pope, who travelled through Dublin in a blue Skoda in keeping with his shunning of limousines and bulletproof cars, said Church leaders needed to remedy past mistakes and adopt stringent norms to ensure they do not happen again.
Irish Prime Leo Varadkar, who last year became the country’s first gay leader, told Francis that the wounds of clerical child abuse that stained the Irish state were still open and there was much to be done to bring about justice and healing for victims.
A damning report last week into abuse in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania, which followed scandals in Australia and Chile, was all too tragically familiar in Ireland, Varadkar said, adding that the time had come for a very different Ireland to build a new relationship with the Church.
“Holy Father, I ask that you use your office and influence to ensure this is done here in Ireland and across the world,” Varadkar said.
“We must now ensure that from words flow actions.”