The toxic issue of clerical child sexual abuse, unavoidably, dominated Pope Francis’ short visit to Ireland.
At every opportunity, the pontiff expressed his regret and a determination to lead a change in the institutional culture that has made this issue so very divisive, so unresolved and, from corporate Catholicism’s perspective, so very destructive.
Yesterday morning, in Knock, Francis was applauded by 45,000 people when he said:
“None of us can fail to be moved by the stories of young people who suffered abuse, were robbed of their innocence, and left scarred by painful memories... I beg the Lord’s forgiveness... I ask our Blessed Mother to intercede for the healing of the survivors and to confirm every member of our Christian family in the resolve never again to permit these situations to occur.”
Many faithful Catholics will be satisfied and reassured by that clear declaration of intent. The Pope, after all, has spoken. That satisfaction will not be undermined by the fact that the Knock admission and others made this weekend, are the latest in an implausibly long list of papal commitments to confront criminal behaviour.
Neither will that satisfaction be diminished by ongoing disclosures of abuse scandals and the Vatican’s persistently inadequate and evasive responses.
The relatively small crowds, compared to 1979, that greeted Francis suggest that for every faithful Catholic whose enduring beliefs made this such a joyous weekend there are probably one or two others who might have welcomed John Paul but no longer cared to make that commitment.
Indeed, this society has become so polarised on these issues that even making observations about unrealised commitments provoke head-in-the-sand accusations from some traditional Catholics.
That dismissal, however, cannot be used to silence comments made by some of the victims of clerical sexual or physical abuse who met Francis on Saturday.
The Pope could not have had knowledge of the individual histories of the eight participants but that he was, apparently, unaware of scandals on the scale of the Magdalen laundries or the Tuam mother-and-baby home raises very difficult questions for those who would defend the Church’s position.
Such a gap in understanding of how deeply this cancer has cut must cast a shadow over the credibility of the weekend’s mea culpas. Was he not briefed, even in the most minimal, bullet-point way?
Did those responsible for briefing him not consider those outrages relevant? Even if the details slipped his mind, he is 81 and has a challenging schedule, surely an aide might have prompted him?
It is unfortunate to have to focus on one detail in a hectic weekend but it is so revealing that it can’t be ignored — especially as it must be so disconcerting for Catholics who hope to see fine words turned into fine deeds.
Catholicism remains of enormous importance to an enormous number of Irish people. How that age-old reality is cherished in a society where a growing number of people no longer feel that loyalty is a huge challenge for us all — but most especially for a Church still struggling to come to terms with a crisis it should have confronted honestly decades ago.