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William Scholes: Abuse crisis will dominate Pope Francis' Irish visit

Whatever other messages emerge during Pope Francis's visit to Ireland and the World Meeting of Families, a clear confrontation of the abuse scandal must be the most prominent, writes William Scholes from Rome, ahead of joining the papal flight to Dublin

Ireland has been sending messages to Pope Francis ahead of his visit, starting tomorrow, including an art installation by Mannix Flynn in Dublin city centre. But what message will the Pope bring to Ireland? Picture by Niall Carson/PA Wire

FROM the moment his visit to Ireland was confirmed, it was inevitable that whatever else he said or did, Pope Francis would have to confront the spectre of abuse.

Just about every international visit he embarks upon these days is the same, of course.

This is because it is by now abundantly clear that whatever manifest good the Catholic Church has done, that good has far too often become disfigured through abuse.

Something endemic in Church structures - clericalism, though the term seems inadequate - facilitated not only the abuse itself but also the cover-up of the abusers' actions; the goal, time and time again, was not to protect the vulnerable but to preserve the reputation of the institution.

Yet even in a global context that is truly appalling, the Irish national experience of abuse is probably unique in its depth and breadth.

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Clerical sexual abuse, we know, is just part of the story. There is also the casual violence meted out to pupils in Catholic schools, the excesses of the mother and baby 'homes', the unspeakable tragedy of babies buried in unmarked mass graves... and so it goes on.

The State must answer for its part, too.

But those who say they serve in the name of Christ must be continually held to a higher standard.

Recent events elsewhere mean this weekend will be framed by abuse in an even starker way.

Already this week, the Pope has issued a letter to all of the world's Catholics on abuse, a highly unusual move precipitated by an unfolding disaster in the United States.

There, the familiar pattern - ignore it, cover-up, collusion, denial, vilification of victims, pay-offs - has been exposed on an almost industrial scale.

A grand jury convened in Pennsylvania identified more than 1,000 victims of 300 credibly accused priests.

That is bad enough - until you realise that this covers just six of the 200-plus dioceses in the United States...

Figures close to the Pope are involved in the latest US scandal.

Meanwhile, Francis's own handling of the abuse issue has, at times, been less than sure-footed.

He made a mess of it during a visit to Chile, though he has since apologised for his own "serious errors", and his Commission for the Protection of Minors has been less than stellar.

Indeed, Marie Collins, an Irish survivor of abuse, resigned from the commission, citing resistance to its work from within the Vatican.

Whether Francis can bring more than further words of sorrow and contrition to Ireland remains to be seen. Meeting Irish victims of abuse is the least he can do.

Voices within the Church as well as without are demanding further action, though it seems unlikely that the Pope can adequately satisfy all their demands this weekend.

The Pope, of course, has lots of other messages he likes to talk about. The plight of refugees, abortion, homelessness, ecumenism, the challenges of secularism and the need for the Christian Church to 'go to the peripheries' are familiar Francis themes. Expect to hear him speak on these over the coming days.

Former president Mary McAleese is a formidable and prominent Catholic critic, in Ireland and also internationally, of the Church's record on a number of hot button issues, including the role of women and its attitude to gay people.

It will be fascinating to see if Francis will at some point address any of her specific criticisms - what, it might be said, could be more natural when he is in Ireland to attend a World Meeting of Families and the idea of 'family' itself is increasingly broad?

William Scholes will be on Pope Francis's flight from Rome to Dublin and will be following him during his Irish visit

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