ROME – In the run-up to Pope Francis’s intense 32-hour visit to Ireland, the question was if a trip so short could have an impact on the mounting storm of clerical sexual abuse, both in the past two decades and in the past two weeks.
As he has before, Francis had to walk a tight rope — not because of the fear of repercussions for a community facing genocide, for instance, as in Myanmar – but because of the long history of pain caused by the Church in Ireland, the wounds of which were ripped open just before the pope arrived by revelations from Chile, the United States, and elsewhere.
Francis, however, also could not ignore the main thrust of his pastoral visit to the Emerald Isle: The Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families, which brought together thousands of families from over 100 countries. They too wanted to hear from the pope, and not exclusively about abuse and the Church’s response, but about family life and the challenges young couples face today.
Francis’s visit to Ireland was, in a way, two trips rolled into one, and the tone of his words and the reception he received demonstrated this, both at the events and in the streets: Thousands cheered him in a stadium on Saturday, but earlier in the morning the prime minister, Ireland’s first openly gay leader, didn’t shy away from listing the Church’s failures.
The failures of the Irish Church, at the center
During the seven speeches the pope delivered, he addressed the crimes of the Irish Church four times.
Twice it had been expected: with the civil authorities – the first speech Francis delivers on most of his trips – and during his remarks to the bishops, the very last of the trip. Much as he did upon his arrival in Chile last January, he condemned the “repugnant crimes” of abuse.
Yet he failed to offer a new action plan that would answer the question of thousands of victims around the world: How and by whom are bishops who covered up for abuse being held accountable?
He spoke about this on the way back to Rome, answering questions posed to him by reporters. He said that ad-hoc tribunals are being set up when allegations against bishops are brought up, and mentioned the case of the former archbishop of Guam, Anthony Sablan Apuron. The tribunal formed to look at his case found him guilty of “certain accusations” which included abuse, and Francis said that he’s personally dealing with the appeal with the help of a group of canon law experts.
Yet there’s still no transparency when it comes to putting bishops on the stand. As per his own words, a second process against a bishop is currently underway, but it’s unknown who the bishop on trial actually is.
In Chile alone, there are five possible bishops who could be under investigation. Francis recently removed them from their positions, with no explanation given, although all have been accused of covering up for abusive priests or ignoring allegations made against clergy.
One of the bishops, Gonzalo Duarte, is accused not only of cover-up but of abusing seminarians himself, and charges against him were brought up to the Vatican back in 2008.
In addition, the Archbishop of Santiago, Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, is still in his position even though he’s past the retirement age, and he’s been summoned by the prosecutor’s office to testify on charges of cover-up.
On Saturday, Francis met with a group of eight survivors of sexual abuse, as well as abuse of power and conscience, including some who’d been torn apart from their unwed mothers.
One survivor of clerical sexual abuse, Marie Collins, an Irish laywoman and a former member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, said on Twitter she’d spoken to the pope about accountability, and Francis assured her that it’s “already happening, findings are being made against those who cover up and they are being removed […] I do not agree with how it is being done and said so.”
The other two times Francis mentioned the crimes of the Catholic Church in Ireland had a more “pastoral” tone.
Both took place on Sunday, and one had presumably been planned since the beginning of the trip, when Francis visited the Shrine of Our Lady of Knock.
“I beg the Lord’s forgiveness for these sins and for the scandal and betrayal felt by so many others in God’s family,” Francis said. “I ask our Blessed Mother to intercede for the healing of the survivors and to confirm every member of our Christian family in the resolve never again to permit these situations to occur.”
His words were received with applause, as was the “penitential prayer” he delivered later in the day, before a reported 300,000 people who braved the inclement weather to attend the papal Mass in Phoenix Park. He told reporters that he’d decided to do this after encountering the survivors, and that the survivors themselves helped him make the list.
In his last public remarks, Francis once again apologized for the wrong-doings and the inactions of members of the hierarchy, including a crime he told journalists he knew nothing about until he encountered survivors.
“We apologize for the children who were estranged from their mothers and for all those times in which it was said to many single mothers who tried to look for their children who had been estranged from them, or to the children who were looking for their mothers, that ‘it was a mortal sin.’ This is not a mortal sin, it is the fourth commandment! We ask for forgiveness,” Francis said, to the respectful applause of the crowd.
With families, a more pastoral tone
Though the Mass was technically the closing act of the World Meeting of Families, the congregation was predominantly Irish, including thousands who came down from Northern Ireland. But there were two events on Saturday that were clearly family oriented: His meeting with young couples, and the Festival of Families.
In St. Mary’s Cathedral, speaking to 350 couples who are either getting ready to marry or who recently did so, the pope said that the most important place to pass on the faith is at home through the “quiet example of the parents.”
“The faith is passed on ‘around the family table,’ in ordinary conversation, in the language that preserving love alone knows how to speak,” he said, urging families to pray together, because a family “that prays together, stays together.”
Later that day, surrounded by thousands in Dublin’s Croke Park Stadium, the pope urged families to spend time together, unplug from their devices and instead establish a dialogue with one another: Everybody is called to the vocation to love and to sainthood, and they’re “silently present in the heart of all those families that offer love, forgiveness and mercy when they see the need, and do so quietly, without great fanfare.”
Only time will tell if the local Church will be able to capitalize on the visit, by reaching out to the margins and building on the pope’s call for the wounds created by every kind of abuse to be healed.
As Dublin’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said in the Mass, “It may seem a paradox for me to say in the same breath that the faith in Ireland is strong, and that faith in Ireland is fragile.”
The pope’s trip, some local observers have pointed out, was a good start toward rebuilding trust in the Church in Ireland. In his visit to a center for the homeless run by the Capuchins, Francis gave an idea as to how that might happen.
“Your witness teaches priests to listen, to be close, to forgive and not demand too much,” he said talking to the religious. Talking instead to the homeless, “the people of God,” who were there, Francis said: “Pray. Pray for the Church. Pray for the priests. Pray for the Capuchins. Pray for the bishops, for your bishop. And also, pray for me.”