Pope Francis faces a struggle this weekend to reinvigorate Ireland’s confidence in the Catholic Church, in the face of multiple abuse scandals and a new generation shedding traditional mores.
Once a bastion of Roman Catholicism, Ireland is unrecognisable from the country visited by pope John Paul II almost 40 years ago, when divorce was banned and same-sex marriage unheard of. The Church’s grip on Irish society has weakened and the papal visit on Saturday and Sunday is a moment for Ireland to take stock of the Church’s diminished role in national life. Also unimaginable at the last papal visit to Ireland in 1979: Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who will meet Pope Francis on Saturday at the start of the visit, is openly gay.
The pope is visiting Ireland for the first time to close the 2018 World Meeting of Families (WMF) – a global Catholic gathering that takes place every three years.
The pontiff will be forced to address the catalogue of abuse that has dramatically eroded the Church’s authority in Ireland. Some 14,500 people have applied for compensation under an official scheme for victims of clerical sex abuse set up in 2002.
Diarmuid Martin, the Archbishop of Dublin, said the visit would be marked by anxiety about the Church in Ireland. “My hope is that Pope Francis will challenge the Church in Ireland to be different... in a culture that is different,” the primate of Ireland said in his homily on Sunday. “The pope has to speak frankly about our past but also about our future. We need a Church with confidence.”
The highlight of the pope’s visit is a giant Mass in Dublin’s Phoenix Park on Sunday. Some 500,000 are expected to attend: a tenth of the population.
Though still a huge crowd, the comparison with John Paul II’s visit illustrates how times have changed. In 1979, 1.5 million saw John Paul II in Phoenix Park, a third of the population at the time and probably the largest-ever gathering in Irish history.
Irish society has very publicly rejected Church teaching in two recent referendums. In 2015, 62 percent voted in favour of legalising same-sex marriage. And this year on May 25, 66 percent voted in favour of lifting the constitutional ban on abortion imposed after a referendum in 1983.
These were seen as watershed moments, but for some they confirmed a change in Irish society that had long since taken place.
At an annual national commemoration service on Sunday, Agriculture Minister Michael Creed praised the widening split between Church and State.
“The Church assumed control of social policy with the aid of an acquiescent government and a cowed people,” he said. “This dark chapter of abuse and cover-up has seen a deep rift emerge between many of the faithful and the official Church. The steady separation of Church and State in recent times is good for both.”
‘NOPE TO THE POPE’
The pope will go to Archbishop Martin’s pro-Cathedral in Dublin on Saturday and pray in a chapel dedicated to abuse survivors. The Vatican said Tuesday that Pope Francis would also meet with victims. The announcement came the day after he condemned the “atrocities” revealed by a far-reaching US report into clerical child sex abuse in Pennsylvania, saying Church officials had failed to protect “little ones.”
“My hope is that he will speak kindly but also speak frankly. The recent history of the Church in Ireland had its moments of real darkness,” Martin said. “It is not enough just to say sorry. Structures that permit or facilitate abuse must be broken down forever.”
Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, said the Irish Church had “recognised its failures” and had implemented measures to prevent recurrences. Pope Francis’s visit is “a journey of hope,” he said. “We can really change and we can build a society in which the children and the vulnerable persons are secure.”
The pope will address the WMF at Croke Park, the 82,000-capacity Gaelic games stadium, on Saturday. On Sunday, he will visit the rural Knock shrine before the Phoenix Park Mass.
However, the “Say Nope to the Pope” campaign saw people snap up some of the 500,000 free tickets with no intention of going, as a form of peaceful protest. They will hold a separate event in the city centre.
The One in Four abuse survivors’ support organisation -–which says as many as one in four adults have experienced some form of sexual abuse before the age of 18 – is attending the alternative gathering.
“The pope’s visit is very distressing to many survivors, retriggering old emotions of shame, humiliation, despair and anger,” said executive director Maeve Lewis. “The least they deserve during this papal visit is a clear commitment that the Catholic Church finally intends to deal with clerical child sexual abuse.”
Catholic Church’s paedophile scandals across the world
The Catholic Church has been shaken by a string of paedophile scandals over the past 25 years and the topic is high on the agenda as Pope Francis heads to Ireland. Here is a rundown of some of the high-profile cases:
A grand jury investigation into dioceses in Pennsylvania published in August threw light on sexual abuse, systematically covered up by the Church, by “over three hundred predator priests,” of which more than 1,000 child victims were identifiable.
Between 1950 and 2013 the US Catholic Church received 17,000 complaints of sexual abuse said to have taken place in the period 1950-1980 involving around 6,400 clerics. Experts speaking at the Vatican said in 2012 the number of abused US minors is probably close to 100,000.
The Church in Chile has also been recently rocked by accusations of a wide-scale cover-up of child abuse. Local prosecutors said in July they are investigating 158 members of the country’s Church – clergymen and lay people – for perpetrating or concealing the sexual abuse of children and adults dating back as far as 1960.
So far 38 inquiries involving 73 people have been opened over the alleged sexual abuse of a total of 104 victims, most of whom were minors at the time.
During a visit to Chile in January, Pope Francis stirred controversy by supporting a bishop, Juan Barros, accused of covering up for paedophile priest Fernando Karadima during the 1980s and 1990s. Francis said he was convinced of his innocence and called on victims to present proof of his guilt. Francis later apologised and invited some of the victims to Rome in May as well as summoning all Chile’s bishops, who then presented their resignations. Five, including that of Barros, have been accepted by the pontiff.
Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican’s third-highest ranking official, faces prosecution in Australia for historical child sexual offences.
In July the Vatican announced the departure of Philip Wilson, the archbishop of Adelaide, who had been found guilty of failing to report allegations against notorious paedophile priest Jim Fletcher in the 1970s. Wilson was sentenced to a year in detention, which he will serve at home, becoming one of the highest-ranking church officials to be convicted of concealing sexual abuse.
Since 2010 hundreds of cases of sex abuse against minors in religious institutions have emerged in Germany.
The most high-profile involve Jesuitrun Canisius college in Berlin and a choir in Ratisbonne, southern Germany. In the latter case at least 547 children were allegedly victims of abuse, including rapes, between 1945 and the early 1990s.
Accusations of child abuse in Catholic institutions in Ireland date back several decades, with the number of underage victims estimated at around 14,500. Several bishops and priests accused of committing or covering up the abuse have been punished. Marie Collins, who was raped by a hospital chaplain at the age of 13, quit a Vatican anti-paedophilia panel in March 2017 in protest at the lack of action.
The Pope will discreetly meet the victims of sex abuse during his trip.