Pope Francis asked for forgiveness on Sunday for the “scandal and betrayal” felt by victims of sexual exploitation by Catholic clergy as he toured Ireland where years of abuse scandals have shattered the Church’s former dominant role in society.
On the first papal visit to Ireland in almost four decades, Francis met privately with eight victims of clerical, religious and institutional abuse on Saturday and said he would seek a greater commitment to eliminating this “scourge”.
But pressure on the pope over the issue increased on Sunday when a former top Vatican official accused Francis of having known of allegations of sex abuse by a prominent US cardinal for five years before accepting his resignation last month.
“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,” Francis told a crowd of tens of thousands at the Knock shrine in the west of Ireland on Sunday morning.
“This open wound challenges us to be firm and decisive in the pursuit of truth and justice. I beg forgiveness for these sins and for the scandal and betrayal felt by so many others in God’s family,” he said, to applause from the crowd.
Years of sexual abuse scandals have shattered the credibility of the church which four decades ago dominated Irish society. In the past three years, Irish voters have approved abortion and gay marriage in referendums, defying the Vatican.
The declining influence of the Catholic Church has been demonstrated by crowds far smaller than those that met Pope John Paul II during the last Papal visit in 1979, when more than three-quarters of Ireland’s population turned out.
Still, up to 500,000 were expected to flock from all over the country to watch Francis end his visit by saying mass at Dublin’s Phoenix Park.
“Given the way things are with so many young peoples’ faiths – a lot are not coming to mass because of the abuse – hopefully Pope Francis can draw them back in again,” said Celine Hill, 57, who woke up at 0300 local time to travel from Portstewart in Northern Ireland to see the pope with her husband, Kieran.
Francis, facing sexual abuse crises in several countries, wrote an unprecedented letter to all Catholics last week asking each one of them to help root out “this culture of death” and vowing there would be no more cover ups.
During the 20th century tens of thousands of unmarried pregnant women, including rape victims, were sent to give birth at so-called mother-and-baby homes. Many of the children were adopted and between the 1930s to 1950s the mortality rate for the “illegitimate” children was far higher than that for those born to married parents.
Some who turned out on a misty morning in the village, where a group of locals in 1879 said they saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary, said Francis should be given a chance to deal with the abuse issues that have rocked the church for decades.
“People have to give this man a chance, he’s trying his best,” said Carmel Lane, who travelled from County Longford in the midlands to attend the Mass.
Vatican officials on Sunday declined immediate comment on the 11-page letter in which Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano said he had told Francis in 2013 that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had faced extensive accusations of sexual abuse.
One Irish survivor of clerical abuse who met the pope on Saturday, Paul Redmond, said strong language used by Francis at the meeting gave him hope that something might be shifting in the Catholic Church.
“There’s been a lot of false dawns, there’s been a lot of empty promises and a lot of talk but maybe, maybe this is the time something, something substantial will actually happen in the church,” Redmond told Reuters.
Ireland’s deputy prime minister Simon Coveney also said Francis’ promise of decisive action on abuse was very welcome, but told broadcaster RTE that “people will clearly be watching now after this visit to see what actions follow.”
“I don’t think he should come and expect us to pay for his visit when there are people today in Ireland who are so damaged and need so much help that they can’t function because of all the abuse,” said Lisa, 30, who declined to give her surname.
“He shouldn’t have come.”