Pope's visit

Deaglán de Bréadún: Pope had nothing new to offer on abuse scandal

Pope Francis addressed the abuse issue in his speech in St Patrick's Hall at Dublin Castle. Picture by Yui Mok/PA Wire
Deaglán de Bréadún

ONCE upon a time, if a pope or indeed a cardinal had made a speech in Ireland, he would have been virtually guaranteed a standing ovation.

When Pope Francis finished his address to what might be termed the great and the good at Dublin Castle on Saturday, the applause ranged from respectful to warm but I didn’t see anybody standing to their feet.

For someone like myself, brought up in a fairly closed Catholic society, the measured response to the oration brought home the extent to which Ireland has changed.

And the audience was nothing if not wide-ranging in its composition. The present Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, gave a welcoming speech and sitting in front of him were three of his predecessors: John Bruton from the same Fine Gael party, as well as Fianna Fáil’s Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen.

Sitting across the aisle were four leading members of Sinn Féin: Martina Anderson and Matt Carthy, both of them Members of the European Parliament, Belfast mayor Deirdre Hargey and Conor Murphy, Member of the Legislative Assembly at Stormont – the only place where limbo still exists, now that the Catholic Church has abandoned the concept.

Given the level of controversy over the Church’s response, or lack of it, to the problem of child sexual abuse by its clergy down through the years, it was expected that the issue would be addressed in the Pope’s speech.

Indeed, he could hardly have avoided the question, given the prominence it received in the introductory remarks from Leo Varadkar, who acknowledged also the complicity of the state and added: “As you have said, there can only be zero tolerance for those who abuse children or facilitate that abuse, and we must now ensure that from words flow actions.”

A translation of the Pope’s speech into English was circulated to the media beforehand and he largely kept to his script.

A good administrator in another sphere, if confronted with a similar set of circumstances, would have come up with a five-point plan or equivalent list of fresh initiatives to deal with a problem that had acquired renewed urgency. But not Pope Francis.

His Holiness acknowledged there was a “grave scandal” and said he shared the outrage, pain and shame at “the failure of ecclesiastical authorities” adequately to address these “repellent crimes”.

But he had nothing new to offer beyond the “frank and decisive intervention” by his predecessor Pope Benedict in 2010 to encourage efforts to remedy past mistakes and adopt stringent norms for the future.

The Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland to which he referred received a mixed reaction at the time and failed to allay anxieties and concerns which still remain widespread.

If one were rating this keynote address, the verdict would have to be: “Could do better.”

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