Pope Francis said at the start of a visit to Ireland on Saturday that he shares the outrage of rank-and-file Catholics over the failure of church authorities to punish the “repugnant crimes” of priests who raped and molested children.
Seeking to respond to a global outcry over the abuse scandal, Francis cited measures taken by his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, to respond to the crisis. But Benedict never acknowledged the Vatican’s role in fueling a culture of cover-up, and Francis provided no new details of any measures he would take to sanction bishops who fail to protect their flocks.
“The failure of ecclesial 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. I myself share these sentiments,” the pope said in a speech to government and civil authorities at Dublin Castle.
Adding to his prepared remarks, Francis said he was committed to ridding the church of this “scourge” no matter the moral cost or amount of suffering.
Francis trip has been overshadowed by renewed outrage over the Catholic Church’s systemic failures to protect children following revelations of sexual misconduct and cover-up in the U.S. church hierarchy, a growing crisis in Chile and prosecutions of top clerics in Australia and France.
Francis was expected to meet with victims during his 36-hour visit to Ireland. But neither his words at the start of his visit nor a new meeting with victims is likely to assuage demands for heads to roll over the scandal.
Perhaps in an indication of popular sentiments, the reception Francis received in Dublin contrasted sharply with the raucous, rock star welcome that greeted St. John Paul II in 1979. No one from the general public was on hand at the airport or the roads nearby, and only a handful of people waited to cheer him outside the Vatican residence, despite gloriously sunny weekend weather.
Deeply Catholic Ireland has had one of the world’s worst records of clergy sex abuse, crimes that were revealed to its 4.8 million people over the past decade by a series of government-mandated inquiries. The reviews concluded that thousands of children were raped and molested by priests and physically abused in church-run schools, and exposed bishops who worked to hide the crimes.
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 ends Sunday in Dublin, more than twice the number as for the previous family rally held in Philadelphia three years ago.
And many faithful remained hopeful that Francis’ appearance would bring healing.
“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.”
Francis urged the Irish to do just that, to recognize that for all its failings, the Catholic Church has educated and cared for generations of Irish children in times of famine and great poverty, when no one else would.
“The church in Ireland, past and present, has played a role in the welfare of children that cannot be obscured,” the pope said. “It is my hope that the gravity of the abuse scandals, which have cast light on the failings of so many, will serve to emphasize the importance of the protection of minors and vulnerable adults on the part of society as a whole.”
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, previously banned homosexual acts and same-sex marriage.
Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who will welcome Francis at Dublin Castle on Saturday, is openly gay.
Irish abuse victims and their supporters were expected to hold a solidarity rally 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.
In his inaugural speech, Francis referred euphemistically to the plight of Irish women who were forced for generations to work in laundries or other workhouses because they got pregnant outside of marriage, saying only that they “endured particularly difficult situations.”
When John Paul 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.