DUBLIN – Survivors of sexual abuse are criticizing Pope Francis' opening speech during the first papal visit to Ireland in almost four decades.
The pontiff's comments were seen as a “staggering effort at deflection” that ignored the Vatican’s own role in fueling a culture of cover-up for predator priests.
Following Francis' speech to Irish government authorities on Saturday, survivors of priestly sex abuse expressed their disappointment in the pontiff's words.
Colm O’Gorman, who is leading a solidarity rally Sunday in Dublin for abuse victims, said Francis’ remarks about the shame felt by Catholics were an “insult to faithful Catholics, who have no reason to feel shame because of the crimes of the Vatican and the institutional church.”
Anne Barrett Doyle, co-founder of the online resource Bishop Accountability, said Francis “gave little comfort to heartsick victims” since he provided no details on how he would end the problem, since he alone can sanction complicit bishops.
In his speech, Francis cited measures taken by his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, to respond to the clergy abuse crisis. But he provided no new indications that he would take forceful action to hold bishops accountable for protecting children or to sanction them when they fall short.
Francis said: “The failure of ecclesial authorities ... 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.”
A small group of protesters demonstrated against the pope’s visit outside Dublin Castle, with one banner reading: “Pedophile supporters go home.”
Francis is also expected to meet with victims during his 36-hour visit to Dublin. But neither Francis' words nor a new meeting with victims is likely to calm the outrage among rank-and-file Catholics in Ireland and abroad following new revelations of sexual misconduct and cover-up in the U.S., an ongoing crisis in Chile and prosecutions of top clerics in Australia and France.
Ireland has had one of the worst records of abuse in the world, crimes that were revealed to its 4.8 million deeply Catholic people over the past decade by a series of government-mandated inquiries. They revealed thousands of children raped and molested by priests and physically abused in church-run schools, and bishops who covered up 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 this week's Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families in Dublin, more than twice as many as the previous edition of the family rally in Philadelphia three years ago.
And many faithful are 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, homosexuality, contraception 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 are 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 is 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.
"The actions of the church do not match the words, and they are in fact totally the opposite," Collins said. She called for "robust structures" and strong sanctions to hold accountable bishops and even Vatican officials who fail protect children.
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.