It shouldn’t be hats off to the Pope in August, but a cautious welcome

It’s not clear whether Pope Francis intends to meet survivors of abuse. It’s the least he must do, writes Fergus Finlay.

It shouldn’t be hats off to the Pope in August, but a cautious welcome

SHOULD we welcome Pope Francis to Ireland? Will we be charmed and swept off our feet, as we were by the magnetism of the last Pope who visited us?

Should we be out on the streets protesting? Or should we ignore him entirely?

When I say “we”, I mean we the people, the citizens of a changed country. It’s clear from the published itinerary that the State is preparing to roll out the red carpet. When the Pope lands on August 25, there’ll be an official welcome at the airport.

That will, presumably, involve Simon Coveney, as minister for foreign affairs, and a posse of bishops.

Then, the Pope will be whisked to Áras an Uachtaráin, where he will pay a courtesy call on the President, Michael D Higgins. From there, it will be on to Dublin Castle, where he will meet the “civil authorities” (presumably that means the Government), the diplomatic corps, and others members of the fraternity of the great and the good. His first speech will be made to them.

All of this will happen pretty smartly. Protocol will be observed, but the timings don’t allow for too much lavishness. It doesn’t seem, for example, that there’ll be any motorcade through Dublin, from the airport to the Áras. He’s scheduled to arrive at the President’s house at 11.15 and to be in Dublin Castle at 12.10 — that’s less than an hour. After Dublin Castle, all of the Pope’s engagements are spiritual or pastoral, or whatever the appropriate term is.

So, it may be that the Government has decided that Pope Francis will receive the courtesy due an important foreign visitor and no more than that. A couple of hours of courtesy and engagement and then let him go about this business with his flock.

That seems about right to me. I’m not anti-Pope (he ought to be more welcome here than some democratically elected leaders). But Ireland has moved on a lot since the last papal visit.

And too many things still cloud the relationship between the Irish State and the Catholic Church. Things that can’t just be swept under the red carpet.

In 1979, thousands thronged the streets to watch the Pope’s car pass, but it would be another 13 years before we decriminalised homosexuality. In fact, at the time of the last papal visit, you couldn’t even legally buy a condom here. It was later in 1979 that Charles Haughey introduced his infamous “Irish solution to an Irish problem”. In the legislation he passed, it became possible to buy a condom in a chemist’s shop.

Three conditions had to be met. First, the chemist had to be willing to sell them. Second, the person buying them had to have a doctor’s prescription. Third, both the doctor and the chemist had to be satisfied that the condoms were for “bona fide” family planning purposes, so you couldn’t legally buy them if you weren’t married.

When you look back on it now, it seems absurd, doesn’t it? Yet, Haughey confirmed, in his speech in the Dáil on the legislation, that he had consulted with the leaders of the Church, and a huge range of different organisations, before bringing it in.

He even promised the Dáil that his legislation would not open the floodgates!

But that was only the first of dozens of changes in Ireland since we last had a Pope here. The place and role and power of the Catholic Church have changed beyond all recognition.

We’ve changed endless laws, and the people have voted for the sort of change that would have been unrecognisable to the men who passed that first bill allowing for the sale of condoms, having earlier queued up to kiss the ring of Pope John Paul I.

For me, the defining moment was the publication of the Ryan Report, which set out in horrific detail, over thousands of pages, the physical, sexual, and emotional abuse of generations of children in institutions run by the Church, but funded and inspected by the State.

Only one conclusion was possible, and the Ryan Report didn’t shirk from it. It was the deferential and servile attitude of the State towards the Church, which allowed abusers to destroy children’s lives with impunity. And Judge Ryan was followed by Judge Murphy, who found, unequivocally, that the Church had compounded the abuse over decades by a cover-up that went on well into our time.

Since then — since that first papal visit, in fact, the membership of the Catholic Church has been in steady decline. Participation and practice have been reducing much faster. I wrote here, recently, about how empty my local church was during the religious ceremonies of Holy Week, while the wine bar a few steps away was doing a roaring trade.

In some ways, that’s because the nature of the relationship between Church and State has never been dealt with. It’s also because there are still significant issues of abuse.

If Pope Francis is looking for something to read on the plane on his way here, he could do worse than look through the most recent report of the Church’s own National Board for Safeguarding Children.

In 2017/18, 135 notifications of allegations, suspicions, and concerns were received by the National Board from Church authorities. Of these allegations, 104 related to child sexual abuse.

This is a significant increase over the previous year, when the number of new allegations relating to child sexual abuse amounted to 72. The overall number of allegations in 2016/17 was 86.

THE report acknowledges that the falling trend of the previous three years has been reversed for both the number of new allegations and the number of respondents. To be fair, there is a variety of possible reasons, not least that there is far more vigilance now, and a far greater likelihood of abuse being reported.

And if it is reported, it will be investigated. Gone are the days (I hope) when an allegation against a priest would be quietly discussed between the gardaí and his superiors.

But still, when you strip away the more recent allegations against priests who are no longer alive, and therefore at least not a threat to anyone, there are still 32 living priests against whom there were allegations of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse during the period covered by the report — that is to say, in the last year.

It’s still not clear whether Pope Francis intends to meet survivors of abuse during his visit here. It’s surely, though, the least he needs to do. The Church and its leaders have a long way to go before they can say, hand on heart, that the history of abuse has ended.

Until they can do that, there will be a cloud over any papal visit, no matter how charming or magnetic the Pope himself seems to be.

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