Pope Francis, beginning a historic visit to Ireland, has said the Catholic church’s failure to address clerical sexual abuse “remains a source of pain and shame”, while the 26 County Taoiseach Leo Varadkar called for “zero tolerance” for those who abuse innocent children.
In the first of three planned speeches Pope Francis said he is “very conscious” of the circumstances of “our most vulnerable brothers and sisters.” He was speaking to dignatories at Dublin Castle within hours of his arrival in Ireland and following a formal welcomed by President Michael D Higgins.
“The failure of ecclesiastical authorities - bishops, religious superiors, priests and others - adequately to address these repugnant crimes has rightly given rise to outrage and remains a source of pain and shame for the Catholic community,” he said. “I myself share these sentiments.”
Protests have been organised outside Dublin Castle and elsewhere along the Pope’s two-day visit over the church’s failure to act against paedophiles in their midst, as well as a series of scandals regarding the physical abuse of children and single mothers. In 2012, a mass grave of children was uncovered at a mother-and-baby home run by nuns in Tuam, County Galway.
Pope Francis referred to previous remarks of Pope Benedict and praised his “frank and decisive intervention” on the issue of clerical sexual abuse which he said motivated the Church’s leadership “both to remedy past mistakes and to adopt stringent norms meant to ensure that they do not happen again.”
While recognising the Church’s failures, the Pope also insisted that the church had played a role in promoting the welfare of children in Ireland.
“It is my hope that the gravity of the abuse scandals, which have cast light on the failings of many, will serve to emphasise the importance of the protection of minors and vulnerable adults on the part of society as a whole,” he said.
The Pope also made thinly veiled criticisms of the Dublin government’s attitude to homelessness and abortion. Pope Francis condemned what he said was “a materialistic ‘throwaway culture’” and asked whether it has made people “increasingly indifferent to the poor and to the most defenceless members of our human family, including the unborn, deprived of the very right to life.”
Visiting Ireland to conclude the World Meeting of Families -- the first visit of a Pope to Ireland since 1979 -- Pope Francis also spoke warmly of the peace process and about the importance of recovering “the sense of being a true family of peoples”.
He urged the Irish “never to lose hope or the courage to persevere in the moral imperative to be peacemakers, reconcilers and guardians of one another.”
“Here in Ireland, this challenge has a special resonance, in light of the long conflict that separated brothers and sisters of a single family,” he said.
He also spoke about a Christian tradition in Ireland dating back more than a millennium and a half that “became an integral part of Irish life and culture”.
“Even in Ireland’s darkest hours, they found in that faith a source of courage and commitment needed to forge a future of freedom and dignity, justice and solidarity.”
Among the audience members at Dublin Castle were clerical abuse survivors, justice campaigners and gay rights activists. Hundreds of thousands of the general public are expected to attend events later this weekend at Croke Park, Knock and the Phoenix Park in Dublin, where he is to celebrate Mass tomorrow.
Speaking in Dublin Castle before the Pope made his speech, the Taoiseach said the time had come to build a “new” and “more mature” relationship between the Catholic church and the state in Ireland.
He acknowledged the mistakes of both the church and state in the past, saying: “At times in the past we have failed.”
Varadkar’s government has come under strong pressure to fully separate church and state in the aftermath of a referendum campaign earlier this year which saw unexpectedly strong support to repeal the constitutional ban on abortion.
Referring to the “dark aspects” of the Catholic church’s history, he described the church-run institutions where Irish people were abused and mistreated - the Magdalene Laundries, Mother and Baby Homes, industrial schools - and through illegal adoptions and clerical child abuse as “stains on our State, our society and also the Catholic church.”
These were “people kept in dark corners, behind closed doors, cries of help that went unheard,” Mr Varadkar said, speaking on a stage next to the Pope.
“Wounds are still open and there is much to be done to bring about justice and truth and healing for victims and survivors. Holy Father, I ask that you use your office and influence to ensure this is done here in Ireland and also around the world.”
Addressing the church’s much-criticised handling of clerical sex abuse, the Taoiseach said there “can only be zero tolerance for those who abuse innocent children or who facilitate the abuse.”
“We must now ensure that from words flow actions,” Mr Varadkar told the Pope. “Above all, Holy Father, we ask to you to listen to the victims and to the survivors.”