The official purpose of Pope Francis’ visit to Ireland this weekend is to attend the Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families held every three years.
But with multiple sexual abuse scandals buffeting the Catholic Church across the world, the two-day visit may turn out to be one of the most consequential trips of this papacy. The pope is under intense pressure to enact concrete measures to ensure accountability for church officials who ignored or covered up cases of clerical sex abuse.
Ireland is a predominantly Catholic country where, for decades, the church was more important than the state. “The clergy worked hand in glove with the government,” says American Jesuit priest Thomas Reese, a senior analyst at Religion News Service. “They were very powerful in their villages and their parishes, what the pastor said was the law of the land practically.”
But in the last 10 years, the faith of the Irish people has been severely tested by revelations of decades of cover-ups of priests abusing minors; of the mistreatment of women in notorious institutes run by nuns; of the forced adoption by Catholic agencies of babies of unmarried women; and of corporal abuse of children in church-run state schools.
“[The Irish public] discovered that these institutions to whom they had entrusted their hearts, minds and souls and, above all, their children, were cheating on them,” says Paddy Agnew, a journalist who covers the Vatican for Irish media. “[Clergy members] abused their children, they were burying the babies in mass burial grounds at so-called homes for single, unmarried women.”
Church attendance has plummeted over the years. Agnew points out that Irish rejection of church authority is so intense that a majority voted for same-sex marriage and abortion — two taboos of Catholic doctrine.
“You can forgive your enemies, but they’re not going to forgive the Catholic Church,” Agnew says.
He does not think “that Francis even now gets it — how angry and how disgusted how many people feel, utterly repudiated by what has happened.”
Former Irish President Mary McAleese — who has been scathing in her critiques of church authorities — wonders if Francis will grasp what she calls “the horrible dark side of the Catholic experience that left no Irish family untouched.”
“I ask myself, when the pope comes, where is the pastoral need in my country and will he see it, will he feel it, will he respond? I hope he will,” she says.
In his Sunday homily ahead of the pope’s visit, Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said he hoped that when Francis arrives he will speak frankly about the “darkness” of clergy sexual abuse. He also cited church-run homes where unmarried mothers were sent to avoid scandal and where he said they experienced “extraordinary harshness.”
Martin noted that the papal visit comes at a time of heightened anxiety over the future of the church in Ireland and beyond.
“It is not enough just to say sorry,” he said. “Structures that permit or facilitate abuse must be broken down and broken down forever.”
The Catholic Church is reeling from simultaneous sex abuse scandals — in Chile, Australia and the United States. Last week, a Pennsylvania grand jury released a report documenting over 70 years of abuse of more than 1,000 minors by about 300 priests, and efforts by their superiors to cover it up. It’s the largest investigation of its kind of the Catholic Church in the United States.
At the end of July, Vatican diplomat and former Washington, D.C., Archbishop Theodore McCarrick took the extremely rare step of resigning as cardinal amid allegations of misconduct and sexual abuse of minors.
Responding to the scandals Monday, Francis issued an unprecedented letter in seven languages seeking the help of the faithful to root out “this culture of death” and vowing to prevent further cover-ups of what he specifically labeled as “crimes.”
“With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives,” the pope wrote. “We showed no care for the little ones,” he admitted, “we abandoned them.” The pain of the victims “was long ignored, kept quiet or silenced.”
It was the first-ever papal letter on the subject of clerical sex abuse addressed to all Catholic faithful, believed to number more than 1 billion.
But Francis failed to provide specific measures with which perpetrators of cover-ups — including bishops who failed to report abusers to police — will be held to account.
Many Irish Catholics are angered by the letter and demand more action and fewer words.
“‘Working on it’ is not an acceptable explanation for decades of ‘delay,'” Marie Collins, a prominent Irish church abuse survivor, tweeted in response on Monday.
Collins previously served on the pope’s Commission for the Protection of Minors but resigned in 2017 in protest over Vatican resistance to its recommendations. She told the National Catholic Reporter that Francis “falls down” by not offering concrete plans for action going forward.
As for the pope’s appeal to the faithful to undertake fasting and prayer to feel abuse victims’ pain, Irish Times Religion Correspondent Patsy McGarry commented, “Give me a break.”
During his visit Saturday and Sunday, the Vatican says Francis will meet with survivors of clergy abuse and will pray before a candle in Dublin’s St. Mary’s Cathedral, USA Today reported.
Catholics across the world will be watching and listening carefully as Francis makes the first papal visit to Ireland in 40 years. The Irish are in no mood to be scolded for their country’s shift toward secularism.
“If he takes a nagging tone, if he says that Ireland has done wrong, he’s essentially lost the plot,” says Joshua McElwee, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter (using a common expression for losing one’s mind).
“And they want him also to acknowledge the Vatican’s role that there were directives from on high to protect the church,” he adds, “even though it might hurt more victims or place a priest in a situation that would hurt more victims.”
Francis’ tenure began five years ago as the papacy of reform, but he has faced frequent criticism for failing to deliver on promised changes.
Now, the global sex abuse scandal has become the biggest crisis of his papacy, the touchstone issue for many Catholics around the world. Francis will have difficulty moving forward on any other issue until the church proves it can protect children and hold bishops accountable by eradicating the Vatican’s centuries-old culture of secrecy and clerical self-protection.