Published 1:01 p.m. UTC Aug 25, 2018
Pope Francis, opening the first papal visit to Ireland in almost four decades, wasted little time Satruday in addressing the Catholic Church’s sex abuse crisis, saying he shares outrage over the cover-up of “repugnant crimes” of priests who raped and molested children.
Ireland is ground zero of the Catholic Church’s sex abuse crisis, with the institution under fire across the globe for its systemic failures to protect children or to punish bishops who hid the crimes.
“With regard to the most vulnerable, 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,” the Pope said, speaking in Italian.
“The failure of ecclesiastical authorities — bishops, religious superiors, priests and others — to adequately address these repugnant crimes has rightly given rise to outrage, and remains a source of pain and shame for the Catholic community,” he said in a speech to Irish government authorities. “I myself share these sentiments.”
He did not indicate, however, whether he plans to take forceful action to hold bishops accountable for protecting children or to sanction them when they fall short.
Francis referred to the past remarks of Pope Benedict in a letter to Irish Catholics saying that he “spared no words in recognizing both the gravity of the situation” and in demanding that “truly evangelical, just and effective” measures be taken in response “to this betrayal of trust.”
“It is my hope that the gravity of the abuse scandals, which have cast light on the failings of many, will serve to emphasize the importance of the protection of minors and vulnerable adults on the part of society as a whole,” he said, according to a transcript published by the Irish Times.
Francis was expected to meet with victims during his 36-hour trip and will have “many opportunities” to speak out about abuse, the Vatican said.
But neither Francis’ words nor a new meeting with abuse victims is likely to calm the outrage among rank-and-file Catholics following new revelations of sexual misconduct and cover-up in the United States, an ongoing crisis in Chile and prosecutions of top clerics in Australia and France.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, in remarks in Dublin Castle before the pontiff spoke, set the pointed tone for the visit in saying the time had come to build a “new” and “more mature” relationship between the Catholic Church and the Irish state.
“Building on our intertwined history, and learning from our shared mistakes and responsibilities, it can be one in which religion is no longer at the center of our society, but one in which it continues to have an important place,” he told several hundred dignitaries from Irish political, civic and religious life.
He referred to “dark aspects” of the Catholic Church’s history in Ireland, including illegal adoptions and child abuse by the clergy, as “stains on our State, our society and also the Catholic Church.”
Varadkar called the abuse “unspeakable crimes” that were perpetrated by people within the church “and then obscured to protect the institution.”
“It is a story that was all too tragically familiar to people in Ireland,” he said, according to the Times.
Addressing the Church’s handling of clerical sex abuse, the prime minister said there “can only be zero tolerance for those who abuse innocent children or who facilitate the abuse.”
Ireland has had one of the worst records of abuse in the world, crimes that were revealed to the deeply Catholic nation’s 4.8 million people through a series of government-mandated inquiries over the past decade. The reviews concluded that thousands of children were raped or molested by priests and physically abused in church-run schools while bishops covered up for abusers.
After the Irish church atoned for its past and enacted tough new norms to fight abuse, it had been looking to the first visit by a pope in 40 years to show a different, more caring church that understands the problems of ordinary Catholic families today.
More than 37,000 people – most of them young Catholics – signed up to attend a Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families that started in Dublin on Tuesday and runs through Sunday, more than twice the number as for the last family rally held in Philadelphia three years ago.
And many faithful were hopeful.
“I see a lot of new life amongst young people who have a deep committed faith, Catholic faith,” said Sean Ascogh, a churchgoer at a recent service in Blessington southwest of Dublin. “Obviously, they are very disappointed by what has been happening in the church in the last few years, particularly the whole abuse scandals, but I think people can see beyond that.”
But Ireland’s tortured history of abuse has left its mark.
In a country where Catholic bishops held such sway that they advised the drafters of the republic’s constitution in the 1930s, voters in recent years have turned their backs on core Catholic teachings. They have overturned a constitutional ban on abortion and legalized divorce, contraception and same-sex marriage.
Francis was welcomed on the tarmac of Dublin International Airport by a small official delegation mostly composed of clergy, but no public crowd as would be the norm, especially in a Catholic country.
More: Pope Francis blasts ‘atrocities’ by clergy: ‘We showed no care for the little ones
Related: Amid fallout from Pennsylvania report, Pope Francis to meet with abuse victims in Ireland
Irish abuse victims and their supporters were expected to hold a solidarity rally on Sunday in Dublin, at the same time Francis is celebrating his final Mass to close out the family conference.
Separately, survivors of Ireland’s wretched “mother and baby homes” – where children were exiled for the shame of having been born to unwed mothers – are holding their own demonstration Sunday. The location is Tuam, site of a mass grave of hundreds of babies who died over the years at a church-run home.
Francis will be nearby, visiting the Marian shrine at Knock, but has no plans to visit the grave site.
On the eve of Francis’ arrival in Dublin, Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley – the pope’s top abuse counselor – said protecting children and vulnerable adults was now the single most crucial issue facing the church.
“All endeavors at evangelization and other great works will be dependent upon our ability to own our crimes and failings and to make the protection of children and vulnerable adults our No. 1 priority,” O’Malley said in a statement read out to a safeguarding panel at the World Meeting of Families.
O’Malley had been expected to headline the panel in person, but he backed out at the last minute, citing a new inquiry he launched into his diocesan seminary amid sexual misconduct allegations – one of three big U.S. seminaries that have launched such investigations in recent weeks.
Irish abuse survivor and advocate Marie Collins, who resigned in frustration from O’Malley’s board last year, told the safeguarding panel that if Francis claims to be on the side of victims, the Catholic Church should no longer lobby to block the ability of victims to sue and prosecute abusers after the statute of limitations expires.
She called for “robust structures” and strong sanctions to hold accountable bishops and even Vatican officials who fail protect children.
But Francis offered no such structures or sanctions in a letter he penned on the eve of his Irish visit to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, vowing only to spare no effort to fight the abuse problem. He has vowed “zero tolerance” since the start of his pontificate.
Pope Francis will preside over a vigil Saturday evening. On Sunday, after praying at Knock, Francis celebrates the final Mass in Dublin’s Phoenix Park before returning to Rome.
When St. John Paul II visited Ireland in 1979, in the first-ever papal visit, some 1.25 million people turned out for his inaugural Mass in Phoenix Park, a third of the country’s population and the largest gathering in Irish history at the time.
Contributing: The Associated Press