Once a bastion of Catholicism, Ireland has changed dramatically since the last time a pontiff visited back in 1979 – when divorce and contraception were banned, gay marriage was unheard of, and the Church’s grip on a deeply conservative society was near-total.
As Pope Francis arrives in Dublin on Saturday for a two-day visit, he will find a country led by a gay prime minister, where same-sex marriage was adopted by popular ballot, and in which a large majority of voters chose to revoke one of the world’s most restrictive abortion regimes earlier this year.
Tellingly, such sweeping social change took place despite stiff opposition from the Church.
The Pope’s visit, timed to coincide with the World Meeting of Families (WMOF), a global Catholic gathering, comes at a critical time for the Church in both Ireland and the wider world, with the Vatican mired in a string of abuse scandals that threaten to reshape Francis’s legacy.
Last week a grand jury in the US state of Pennsylvania published a report on the largest-ever investigation of sex abuse in the US Church, finding that 301 priests in the state had sexually abused more than 1,000 minors in a cover-up lasting 70 years.
The damning report, coming on the heels of scandals in Australia and Chile, has revived painful memories of Ireland’s own history of sexual abuse committed by clerics, coupled with the mistreatment of women and girls in the notorious Magdalene Laundries and Catholic-run mother and baby homes.
In response to the Pennsylvania probe, Francis wrote an unprecedented letter to all Catholics on Monday, condemning the “atrocities” revealed by the report and calling on the faithful to help root out “this culture of death”.
“With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesiastical community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realising the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives,” he said in a letter addressed to the “People of God”.
May the Holy Spirit grant us the grace of conversion and the interior anointing needed to express before crimes of abuse our compunction and our resolve courageously to combat them. https://t.co/3CDnYUBLid
— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) August 20, 2018
While the Pope’s letter contained stronger language than had been used in the past, it has been criticised for failing to adequately address the issues of accountability for abuse or for the cover-up of crimes. Maeve Lewis, chief executive of One in Four, an organisation that supports victims of childhood sexual abuse, said she was disappointed and frustrated to find that it offered no specific solutions.
“I accept that [the Pope’s] apologies were sincere, but I could not believe there was not a single concrete step to hold sex offenders and the people who protect them accountable,” Lewis told FRANCE 24. She added: “Survivors are tired of endless apologies with no action taken.”
While the Vatican has stressed that the WMOF remains the focus of the Pope’s visit, his spokesman Greg Burke said this week Francis would have multiple opportunities to address the scandals rocking the Church, including in private meetings with victims of clergy abuse.
“The important thing for the Pope is to listen,” Burke told a news conference at the Vatican, adding that it would be up to the victims to decide if they wished to speak publicly after their meeting with the Pope.
Some victims of sexual abuse and their advocates said it would be better for the Pope to have a public meeting with survivor groups.
“What victims of abuse need, and frankly what Catholics and people living in societies that have been so badly damaged by abuse need, is for the Church to tell the truth and to make itself accountable,” said Colm O’Gorman, a victim of clerical child sex abuse and prominent campaigner in Ireland.
“And frankly these kinds of meetings that look more like PR exercises are really not helpful,” O’Gorman told Irish broadcaster RTE.
When the Pope gives Mass on Sunday before an expected crowd of 500,000 – a tenth of Ireland’s population, but a much smaller crowd than the one that greeted John Paul II in 1979 – O’Gorman will join other abuse victims and supporters for a public event in another part of Dublin. A silent vigil will be held at the same time by locals in the western town of Tuam, four years after an unmarked grave with the remains of hundreds of babies was found there on the grounds of a former Church-run home for unwed mothers and their children.
In a sign of how repeated scandals have cast a shadow on this week’s Catholic gathering in Ireland, local Archbishop Eamon Martin delivered the event’s keynote address on Wednesday in place of Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington DC, who withdrew after he was criticised for his handling of child abuse allegations in Pennsylvania.
“In the aftermath of child abuse scandals and other shameful episodes of the past, there are those who feel they can no longer trust our message, perhaps because they have been directly hurt and betrayed in their families by their experience of Church, or because the revelations of such heinous crimes have shocked them to the core,” said Archbishop Martin, the All-Ireland Primate.
Also addressing the WMOF, Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin said the number of abuse victims in Ireland was “immense”, adding: “The numbers that have come forward is only a proportion of that and there are many people who are holding still in their own hearts the sadness of abuse.”
One in Four’s Lewis said mechanisms put in place by the Archbishop of Dublin to encourage victims to come forward, and strengthen cooperation between the Irish church and civil authorities, set a positive example for the Vatican. She said she hoped both the archbishop and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar – who has promised he will not “skirt over” the issue of clerical abuse during the pontiff’s visit – would press Francis to take similar action.
However, Lewis pointed to the resignation of Irish abuse survivor Marie Collins from the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors as evidence of the Vatican’s resistance to change.
Collins, who resigned from the commission last year in protest at the frustration of its work by Vatican officials, responded to the Pope’s letter this week in a series of tweets demanding action on the issue of accountability.
“Statements from Vatican or Pope should stop telling us how terrible abuse is and how all must be held accountable,” she said. “Tell us instead what you are doing to hold them accountable. That is what we want to hear. ‘Working on it’ is not an acceptable explanation for decades of ‘delay’.”
The Pope’s letter, Collins added, notably lacked a “plan of action” for how to ensure abusers are no longer protected by the Church.
Statements from Vatican or Pope should stop telling us how terrible abuse is and how all must be held accountable. Tell us instead what you are doing to hold them accountable. That is what we want to hear. “Working on it” is not an acceptable explanation for decades of “delay”
— Marie Collins (@marielco) August 20, 2018
According to Lewis, for any plan of action to be effective the Vatican would have to introduce mandatory disclosure of cases of child abuse, ensure clergymen who shield offenders are “immediately and publically dismissed”, and give civil authorities access to its own “enormous” archives on allegations of abuse so that the information is available to the public and criminal proceedings can be launched.
This would have to be implemented throughout the Catholic world, she noted, stressing the threat to “vulnerable children in developing countries with neither child protection schemes nor robust legal systems, and where priests are often regarded as untouchable”.
The Pope has a “huge moral responsibility”, Lewis added, warning that “unless the scourge of abuse is tackled vigorously, it will end in the destruction of the Catholic Church”.