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5 September, 2018  ▪  Michael Binyon

Different Ireland

Countless scandals of past sexual and institutional misbehaviour have left many young people in Ireland deeply hostile to a Church that once dominated every aspect of Irish life

The Pope’s two-day visit to Ireland was always going to be difficult. No country, except perhaps Poland, was once so staunchly Catholic or so respectful of the Church. Yet in the past 20 years, no country has been so shocked and angered by widespread abuse perpetrated by the formerly powerful clergy. Countless scandals of past sexual and institutional misbehaviour have left many young people in Ireland deeply hostile to a Church that once dominated every aspect of Irish life.

  Pope Francis made the first papal visit to Ireland for almost 40 years. The contrast with the triumphal tour by Pope John Paul II in 1979 was telling. Then some 2.5 million people – almost three quarters of the Irish population – flocked to events held across the country. This time there were far fewer people lining the roads to see Pope Francis or attending the one event outside Dublin – a visit to Knock, site of a  claimed apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1879, where he celebrated mass. 

  This time, also, there were angry demonstrators among the faithful, who demanded that the Pope apologise for decades of child abuse at the hands of Irish priests. They also wanted compensation for children who were forcibly removed, at the Church’s behest, from women who gave birth when unmarried. For two centuries, some 30,000 such children were sent, sometimes with their mothers, to Catholic workhouses where conditions were grim, and the women were sent to work in church-run laundries, virtually as slave labour, where they spent years hidden away in shame. 

  The practice went on for decades until the details came to light in the 1990s and the so-called Magdalene laundries for “fallen women” were all closed. In 1993 some 155 corpses of young children were discovered in the grounds of one of the laundries. The Irish government, complicit in this practice, issued a formal apology and set up a £50 million fund for the surviving victims. The religious orders running these laundries have refused to contribute to the fund, however.

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  These scandals have caused a massive uproar in Ireland and meant that the Pope’s visit was dominated by calls for an apology. As soon as he arrived, he begged forgiveness for members of the Catholic hierarchy who “kept quiet” about clerical child sex abuse. He said the failure to address these “repugnant crimes” had given rise to outrage and remained a source of pain and shame for the Catholic community. And rather than a triumphant tour similar to that undertaken by John Paul II, Francis adopted a tone of modesty, humility and repentance throughout the two days.

  The Pope himself must have felt deeply about the laundries scandal, as he was a bishop in Argentina at the time of the military dictatorship when thousands of children were seized from the families of opposition figures and given up for adoption. But he has been repeatedly criticised for not acting earlier over other scandals that have hit the Catholic Church in other countries. In particular in the United States the issue of child abuse has already led to hugely expensive claims for compensation. A report has just been issued in Pennsylvania where the scale of past abuse has shocked many Catholics, and where senior bishops have been accused of systematically trying to cover up the scandals by simply moving abusive priests to other parishes instead of reporting them to the police.   

  These scandals have come on top of similar reports from other countries where priests have been accused of long-standing abuse. In Chile, Australia and Germany there have been similar backlashes against the authority and standing of the Church. Pope Francis was recently criticised for appearing to back the attempts by senior clergy to play down such reports in Chile, and he has had to admit failings by the Church in not taking the claims of Chilean victims seriously.

   All this comes at a difficult moment for Pope Francis. He is not a liberal or reformer, but has tried to be more flexible on sensitive social issues. This has provoked strong opposition to his papacy from within the Vatican, where conservative priests and cardinals have been horrified by what they regard as his failure to uphold traditional Catholic teaching – especially the ban on contraception and divorce and the Church’s condemnation of abortion and homosexuality. Early in his papacy he appeared to indicate a softening in attitudes to gay people when he refused to condemn their lifestyle, simply replying when asked: “Who am I to judge?” The Vatican conservatives, led mostly by the Italian-dominated Curia but also supported by strongly conservative American cardinals, were also particularly incensed by the Pope’s recent suggestion that divorced people should in future be allowed to participate in Catholic communion, something that has long been forbidden. Senior cardinals openly questioned his authority, saying that his proposals would undermine the basis of Catholic teaching.

  Many Catholic thinkers and writers, however, have said that unless the Church changes its teaching to be more in line with prevailing attitudes in most countries, the Roman Catholic Church will continue to lose members and find it hard to recruit new priests – especially as there is no indication that the ban on priests being married will be lifted. The result has been a crisis for the Church especially in countries such as Ireland and Poland, where it had for so long played a prominent role in political life and moral leadership.

 In Poland, the backlash has polarised society. Traditional Catholic teaching has been fiercely embraced by conservative and nationalist Poles, whose political weight is growing and who now dominate the present Polish government. The issue came to a head in the spring, when the ruling Law and Justice party attempted to tighten what are already some of Europe’s most stringent laws in outlawing abortion. The government revived a 2016 proposal that would implement a near total ban on abortion in any circumstances, but which provoked huge street demonstrations attracting more than 100,000 people. 

  In April the church leadership in Poland criticised the lengthy debates in Parliament over the issue and attempted to put pressure on the government to implement a much tougher law immediately. But very many young Poles and especially women’s groups remain hostile to any change, and there have been new, and angrier, demonstrations. Posters were seen saying such things as “I decide about religion, not religion about me”.

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  A similar and more powerful backlash was seen in Ireland, but the result is a more thorough-going defeat for the Church. Almost all the social policies it once fiercely defended have recently been overturned. Divorce, long banned, is now legal. A referendum overwhelmingly voted in favour of same-sex marriage, despite Church opposition – and indeed the current Irish prime minister is a homosexual, something unthinkable only a decade ago. And the ban on abortion was also defeated in another referendum recently. 

  Ireland has moved from being one of the most socially restrictive societies in Europe to being one of the most liberal – all in the teeth of Catholic opposition and largely because recent scandals have almost totally destroyed the Church’s moral authority. 

  Pope Francis is now faced with a huge dilemma. In many parts of the world, especially Brazil and Latin America where Catholic influence was strong, the church is losing support. But in the Vatican he himself is under fierce attack. This was underlined by a blistering letter released by a leader of the conservative faction, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, who accused the Pope of hypocrisy over the sex abuse in America and called on him to resign. The Archbishop, who served as Vatican nuncio in the US, says he warned the Pope over the misbehaviour of a senior American Catholic, now disgraced, in 2013, but nothing was done. The letter, timed to embarrass the Pope during his trip to Ireland, also denounced what he called the “homosexual networks” in the Vatican – an issue bound to create controversy. 

  Pope Francis may now find that wherever he goes, he cannot escape the furore over abuse and misbehaviour that now threatens to engulf the Roman Catholic Church across the world.

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