Nearly 40 years since the last papal visit to Ireland, Pope Francis arrived on Saturday to a transformed country where the once mighty Roman Catholic Church is in tatters, its authority buffeted by deepening secularization and a global sex abuse crisis challenging Francis’s papacy.
“I’m happy for this visit,” Francis said on the papal plane before he landed in Dublin, where he was greeted on the tarmac by local bishops and children who offered him flowers. He added that it “touches my heart to return to Ireland after 38 years. I was here for nearly three months to practice English in 1980. And for me this is a great memory.”
[Follow our live updates of the papal visit to Ireland.]
For Catholics around the globe, this return visit promises to be more memorable.
As recently as a few weeks ago, the pope’s visit to Ireland mostly promised an awkward encounter in an estranged relationship. Since the last papal visit — by John Paul II in 1979 — Ireland, once a cornerstone of the church, has abandoned its teachings by legalizing divorce and gay marriage. The country now has a gay prime minister, and just a few months ago voted to lift a ban on abortion.
But recent revelations in the United States and Chile of the institutional covering-up of sexual abuse by clerics have lent sudden urgency to the pope’s visit, where he will speak at the church’s ninth World Meeting of Families. The issue now threatens to overshadow the visit by Francis, who has struggled to grasp the enormity of the scourge throughout his papacy.
Catholics worldwide wait to see whether he will use Ireland, with its own painful history of abuse, as a symbolic stage upon which to announce concrete measures to combat a crisis that threatens the future of his church. It is not clear that he will.
The shadow cast by the scandals reaches beyond Ireland and to the heart of the Vatican, where it now threatens to darken the legacy and remaining influence of Pope Francis.
Well into his fifth year as pope, Francis has focused on championing migrants, the poor and the disenfranchised, all the while shifting the church’s emphasis away from divisive issues social issues such as abortion and toward a more inclusive, pastoral style.
That mission is imperiled by his slow response to a scandal that some of his top advisers argue is the central issue facing the church.
For decades, the Vatican’s top officials covered up abuse. It took the explosion of the first sex abuse crisis in the United States in the early 2000s to get the church to pay attention. Pope Benedict XVI eventually began ridding the church of what he called the “filth” of abusive priests, but an attitude of denial pervaded in the Vatican, where many considered the scandal the invention of an aggressive and anti-Catholic media.
By the time Francis was elected in 2013, many officials had come to acknowledge the scandal for the global and institutional threat that it was, though many more considered the problem solved by new vetting procedures.
Francis instead promised to tackle what many advocates consider the heart of the issue by insisting on accountability for the bishops in the hierarchy who covered-up abuse. But talk of special tribunals for bishops and other tough, centralized measures evaporated, and advocates grew so disillusioned with pope’s lack of action that some quit his pontifical commissions in protest.
Francis, who this month apologized for the church’s “delayed” response to the crisis, himself came late to it. It was only in January, amid the uproar over his reflexively believing a Chilean bishop and his doubting of Chilean survivors, that Francis has begun to act more decisively, sending investigators, accepting resignations of top Chilean bishops and promising victims that there would be further measures.
But more cases of abuse and cover-up keep coming to light.
The more than 1,000 cases of abuse discovered over 70 years in Pennsylvania, the accusations against Theodore E. McCarrick, the former cardinal of Washington, and the cover-ups of abuse in Chile have all cast a pall over the pope’s busy schedule and the triennial world meeting.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington withdrew as the keynote speaker at the World Meeting of Families to face accusations that he covered up for abusive clergy when he was the bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006.
Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, who is the president of the Vatican’s Commission for the Protection of Minors, canceled an appearance to address accusations of widespread sexual impropriety at the seminary of his archdiocese and his failure to heed warnings about former Cardinal McCarrick.
In Ireland, the question is less whether Francis will broach sexual abuse — the Vatican has said that he will meet with abuse survivors, and he is certain to address the issue — than whether he will take new action.
Expectations are high among sex abuse survivors and their advocates that the pope will find time in his 36 hours in the country to announce historic measures that would show, rather than promise, that the church is serious about the issue.
Before the trip, Francis made it clear that he viewed the secrecy, ambition and self-preservation that came with a culture of clericalism — priests putting themselves above their parishioners — as the root cause of the crime. For years, he has scorned priests who raise themselves as unreachable elites invested with authority, infantilizing laymen in a vicious cycle.
“To say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of clericalism,” Francis wrote in a remarkable letter of apology to all Catholics last week.
“The actions of the church do not match the words,” Marie Collins, a former member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors said at the world meeting’s panel on safeguarding children. “And in fact they are totally opposite.”
Others said the situation was even worse outside the United States, Ireland and a few other countries and urged the pope to do something.
“Words are sweet,” said another panelist, Gabriel Dy-Liacco, a Filipino psychologist who sits on the pope’s commission, “but love means deeds.”
Advocates, church officials and some clerics have articulated a wish list of what should happen. Among the demands are that each church diocese publish the names of abusive priests and hand over church records to civil law enforcement instead of fighting subpoenas.
Some have urged working with courts to aid, rather than hinder, prosecutions of abusive priests and ceasing efforts to indemnify the church from financial penalties. Others have called for the enshrining of zero-tolerance policies into the church’s canon law so that it can be enforced globally, not only in specific countries.
“In Ireland, we have made extraordinary progress,” Diarmuid Martin, the archbishop of Dublin, told reporters this week, adding that he had provided the country’s abuse commission with 80,000 documents and that his diocese had mandatory reporting obligations to local authorities within a day of a substantial accusation.
He said the pope’s commission on child protection lacked teeth, and influence, and he lamented a misogynistic culture among what he suggested were too many sheltered, power-hungry priests who had little real-life exposure to women.
“I believe the truth will make you free even if it’s unpleasant,” he said, adding that “the factors that contribute and protect abusers have to be addressed definitively everywhere.”
As the sex abuse scandal exploded once again before the pope’s trip, a fierce debate about those contributing factors raged in Catholic journals and across churches.
Some critics of the church blamed the vows of celibacy, arguing that a suppression of the human libido morphed into pedophilia and rape.
At the Conference of Catholic Families, an ultraconservative event that is a rival to the Vatican’s world meeting, organizers found the pope’s letter unsatisfactory because it did not call out homosexuality, which, they said, had turned seminaries into “cesspits.”
Wilfrid Napier, a South African cardinal, blamed homosexuality for the scandal and Cardinal Raymond Burke, a high-ranking Vatican conservative and chief critic of Francis, decried to a conservative Catholic blog “a very grave problem of a homosexual culture in the Church,” not only among the clergy “but even within the hierarchy, which needs to be purified at the root.”
Many experts reject the conflation of homosexuality and pedophilia as a dangerous route to bigotry against gays, and some liberal clergy have even argued that, if anything, the church needs more Catholic homosexuals, because they understand what it is to be marginalized, and thus have a greater pastoral sensibility.
“They bring gifts to the church,” Rev. James Martin, a prominent Jesuit priest said in a well-attended and Vatican-sanctioned talk at the World Families meeting on Thursday here that infuriated conservatives.
“Their compassion is a gift,” he added, “They are often forgiving of pastors and priests who have treated them like dirt. Their forgiveness is a gift. They persevere as Catholics in the face of years of rejection.”
But the one factor many of these opposing sides seem to agree on is that clericalism, from the seminaries to the top of the hierarchy, is insidious.
Australia’s Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse concluded in its December report that when it came to sex abuse in the church, “clericalism is at the center of a tightly interconnected cluster of contributing factors” and was “linked to a sense of entitlement, superiority and exclusion” and “caused some bishops and religious superiors to identify with perpetrators of child sexual abuse rather than victims and their families.”
On Friday in Dublin, Blase Cupich, the archbishop of Chicago, who has blamed a “clerical culture” for the abuse, began a panel he moderated on “The Dignity and Beauty of Sexual Love: Finding New Language for Ancient Truths,” by lamenting “the woeful responses of bishops who failed to protect” abuse survivors.
Ireland knows the ravages of clericalism first hand, from its sex abuse scandals to forcing the adoption of the children of unwed mothers to many other exploitations of what was for decades authoritarian power.
The abuses the clergy committed, and their tendency to seek exaltation by parishioners instead of humbly serving and accompanying them through troubles cost the church a country where it once had more than 90 percent attendance at mass. Now it has about 30 percent.
But if Francis decides to make a bold policy change to protect his surviving flock around the world from the same threat, Ireland gives him a compelling backdrop from which to do so.