Ireland’s prime minister Leo Varadkar has urged Pope Francis to listen to those who suffered child sexual abuse at the hands of the clergy, as the pontiff began a two-day visit to the country.
Mr Varadkar called on the head of the world’s 1.3bn Catholics to use his power to ensure justice for those who were seriously mistreated by senior members of the church.
The Pope’s visit has been overshadowed by tension over the decades-long abuse scandal. The Irish premier said that he hoped that Francis’s arrival would open a new chapter in relations between church and state, after the pair held a private meeting in Dublin Castle.
“I believe that the time has now come for us to build a new relationship . . . a new covenant, perhaps, for the 21st century,” Mr Varadkar said.
Although Catholic social thinking was long infused in Irish civil law, the country has modernised since the last papal visit 39 years ago. Ireland adopted divorce in the 1990s and gay marriage in 2015. A referendum in May that legalised abortion was seen as a sign that clergy can no longer sway political debate.
But tens of thousands of people still thronged the streets of Dublin on Saturday afternoon to see the Pope.
Francis said the failure of church authorities to adequately address the “repellent crimes” committed by the clergy had rightly led to outrage and remained a source of “pain and shame” that he shared.
“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,” he said.
The pontiff’s visit has highlighted how the influence of a church that once dominated Ireland has faded under the shadow of an long abuse scandal that has eroded both its influence and credibility. A US grand jury report this month criticised the abuse of more than 1,000 children in Pennsylvania by 300 priests, and Irish leaders have called on Francis to open Vatican records on the scandal to investigators.
Mr Varadkar said there should be “zero tolerance” for abusers and people who facilitate abuse. “Above all . . . I ask to you to listen to the victims,” he said.
The Pope is scheduled to meet victims in Dublin later on Saturday. He was driven through the Irish capital in his popemobile before an address to 80,000 people at a Catholic congress on families in Croke Park stadium. His visit culminates in a mass for 500,000 people on Sunday in Phoenix Park, Dublin’s biggest recreational area.
On Dame Street in downtown Dublin as she waited in the crowds for the Pope, Elizabeth Barry told how she had travelled 123km from Kilkenny for the day. “I like Pope Francis. I think he’s quite open and he’s open for discussion and other people’s views,” she said.
Colm O’Gorman, who set up a support group for survivors, said he wanted to hear “the truth” from the Pope. “The only thing that the Pope needed to say [was] that he acknowledges as head of state of the Vatican city state . . . and as pontiff of the Roman Catholic church that the Vatican has directed, implemented and instituted a cover-up of the crimes of clergy, including the rape and abuse of children, of women and of vulnerable adults across the world.”
Francis implicitly criticised the referendum vote to legalise abortion decision, asking whether the goal of economic prosperity lends itself to a more just and equitable order. “Or could it be that the growth of a materialistic ‘throwaway culture’ has in fact made us 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?”
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