DUBLIN (Reuters) – Pope Francis vowed on Saturday to end the “repugnant” sexual exploitation of children by Catholic clergy as he made a highly-charged visit to once devout Ireland where years of reported abuse have driven many Irish away from the Church.
On the first papal visit to Ireland in almost four decades, Francis said in a speech at a state event that was also attended by some abuse survivors that it was to the Church’s shame it had not addressed these “crimes” and he said he was signalling a greater commitment to eliminating this “scourge”.
More than three-quarters of Ireland’s population flocked to see Pope John Paul II in 1979 when divorce and contraception were illegal. Francis was greeted by far smaller numbers.
But years of sexual abuse scandals have shattered the credibility of the Church as a moral leader. In the past three years, Irish voters have approved abortion and gay marriage in referendums, defying its wishes.
However, flag-waving supporters still gathered from five or six deep along many parts of Francis’s route, although in other parts he greeted crowds from his popemobile by a more sparse turnout.
“I cannot fail to acknowledge the grave scandal caused in Ireland by the abuse of young people by members of the Church charged with responsibility for their protection and education,” Francis said at the state event.
“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.”
In unprepared remarks, Francis added a reference to a letter he addressed last Monday to all the world’s Catholics on the abuse crisis, saying he wanted it to signal “a greater commitment to eliminating this scourge in the Church, at any cost”.
One of the abuse survivors present, Colm O’Gorman, called the pope’s remarks a staggering effort at deflection that failed to acknowledge what O’Gorman said was the Vatican’s role in covering up the crimes.
“It was quite shocking actually in some ways,” O’Gorman, a leading abuse campaigner, told national broadcaster RTE.
Large images of abuse victims and the hashtag #Stand4Truth – promoting a gathering of survivors and supporters elsewhere in Dublin when the pope says mass on Sunday – were projected onto some of the city’s most recognized buildings on Friday night.
They included Dublin’s Pro Cathedral, where on Saturday Francis prayed before a candle commemorating abuse victims that was first lit in 2011.
But despite the lack of enthusiasm among some people, pictures of the pope were on the front pages of every newspaper on Saturday and there was excitement among those on the streets.
“I think it’s absolutely marvelous. There are one or two objectors, but I think they should keep their objections to themselves and get into the spirit of the thing,” said Christina O’Riordan, a 76-year-old retired teacher.
Despite changes in Irish society, Francis asked that Ireland would not forget “the powerful strains of the Christian message” that have sustained it in the past, and can continue to do so in the future.
About a quarter of the 2.7 million who greeted John Paul II were expected to turn out for Francis.
“The crowd is smaller than I thought. It’s a good crowd, but wouldn’t be near what you’d get for (Saint) Patrick’s Day,” said Christy Moore, 59, referring to Ireland’s national holiday as he sold papal flags wearing an ‘I love Pope Francis’ hat .
“It was much much bigger (in 1979). There’s not that much interest in it now.”
A TIME FOR ACTION, NOT WORDS
Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who last year became Ireland’s first gay leader, told Francis that the wounds of clerical child abuse that stained the Irish state were still open and there was much to be done to bring about justice and healing for victims.
A damning report last week into abuse in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania, which followed scandals in Australia and Chile, was all too tragically familiar in Ireland, Varadkar said, adding that the time had come for a very different Ireland to build a new relationship with the Church.
“Holy Father, I ask that you use your office and influence to ensure this is done here in Ireland and across the world,” Varadkar said.
“We must now ensure that from words flow actions.”
In other protests gay rights activists hung rainbow umbrellas from a nearby bridge while a silent vigil will be held on Sunday at the site of a former Church-run home for unwed mothers where an unmarked grave with the remains of hundreds of babies was found in 2014.
The Vatican has said Francis would meet Irish victims of clergy sexual abuse.
The pope, who traveled through Dublin in a blue Skoda in keeping with his shunning of limousines and bulletproof cars, said Church leaders needed to remedy past mistakes and adopt stringent norms to ensure they do not happen again.
Writing by Padraic Halpin and Philip Pullella; Additional reporting by Graham Fahy and Hanna Rantala; Editing by Richard Balmforth