Faith Matters

'The Pope told us he took ownership of the abuse scandals. It was momentous'

Two weeks ago, Fr Patrick McCafferty told his Belfast congregation that Pope Francis should not come to Ireland because he should instead be dealing with the Catholic Church's unfolding abuse crisis. But then he was invited to be part of a group of abuse survivors who would meet the Pope. He tells William Scholes about the encounter

Pope Francis at Phoenix Park, where he celebrated Mass on Sunday and appealed for forgiveness for a litany of abuses committed by the Church. Picture by Danny Lawson/PA Wire

MY phone buzzed with yet another new message, this time on the Viaggio Apostolico in Irlanda channel of the app used by the Vatican-accredited journalists travelling with Pope Francis at the weekend.

It was Saturday evening, and I was beneath the front of the stage erected in Croke Park for the Festival of Families concert.

Nathan Carter was in full flow, with his not-that-bad rendition of REM's Everybody Hurts.

The timing of message and song was apt; the message, from Greg Burke, the Pope's official spokesman, said simply that Francis had just finished meeting with "Irish survivors of clerical, religious and institutional abuse".

The meeting had lasted for 90 minutes which, in the context of the Pope's intense schedule, represented a significant amount of time.

A list of names followed: Marie Collins, Fr Joe McDonald, Damian O'Farrell, Paul Redmond, Clodagh Malone and Bernadette Fahy.

"One survivor, a victim of Fr Tony Walsh, preferred to remain anonymous," said Mr Burke's message.

Another name particularly stood out to this correspondent, that of Fr Patrick McCafferty.

The Down and Connor priest's story is well known to readers of the Irish News. It includes being abused while a seminarian by the ruthless James Donaghy, who was another Down and Connor priest.

Donaghy used his clerical position to facilitate his crimes, and he was jailed for his sexual abuse of Fr McCafferty and three others. Pope Francis laicised him in 2013, "on his own authority and for the good of the Church".

There is some redemptive irony in the fact that Fr McCafferty is today parish priest at Corpus Christi parish in Ballymurphy in west Belfast, the same place where Donaghy once also preyed on his victims.

Though Fr McCafferty is positive of the support he has received from his present bishop, Dr Noel Treanor, he has also been critical of the Church's handling of the abuse crisis.

As recently as two weeks before the Pope's visit he told his congregation that, with new scandals emerging in the United States, he should stay away from Ireland "on account of the betrayal, the destruction of trust and entire loss of credibility".

Imagine his surprise when, almost immediately afterwards, he was contacted by Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin's office and invited to meet the man he had urged to stay away from Ireland.

"I was flabbergasted to be asked if I would meet the Pope as part of a group of survivors," he told me.

"I had just preached that the Pope shouldn't come - what was the point of this big jamboree," he said, referring to the World Meeting of Families, "when he should be staying in Rome to address the abuse issues?"

Fr McCafferty travelled to Dublin on Saturday and met with the rest of the group at Dr Martin's house. From there they were brought by Gardai to the papal nuncio's residence, where the Pope was staying.

"We were shown into a room and 5.15pm there was a flurry of activity and a door opened and there was the Pope," he said.

With him was his English language interpreter, Monsignor Mark Miles, a priest from Gibraltar.

"I have to commend him," said Fr McCafferty. "He didn't just translate but communicated the essence of what we were all saying.

"The Pope greeted each of us individually, and we sat in a small circle.

"He told us to speak clearly - there was no sense of, 'This is the Pope, you better mind your Ps and Qs'.

"He wanted us to talk very openly, and that is what we did. It was an encounter of human beings."

Fr McCafferty said he was "shocked in some ways at how frank" the Pope was - and not only in the 'caca' remark he made when describing those who cover-up abuse as something you would find in the toilet.

"There was a lot of raw emotion expressed in that room, and Pope Francis accepted it all - he took ownership," said Fr McCafferty.

"'I alone am responsible,' he told us. Here was the Vicar of Christ saying he was responsible, in a very abject way.

"He was very shocked and hurt about what he was hearing. He would put his hands on his head in horror at what we were telling him."

Fr McCafferty said Pope Francis made a real effort to engage with what the Irish abuse survivors were telling him.

"During the conversation he would stop to clarify what we meant. He wanted to understand the nuances - 'I want to understand as clearly as I can,' he told us," said the Belfast priest.

That meant the Pope had to have explained to him, for example, what exactly a Magdalene laundry was.

I found it extremely intense. There was a lifetimes' suffering in that room, distilled into an hour-and-a-half. It was overwhelming. I almost wanted it to be over

Fr McCafferty said the organisers of the meeting had done their best to "have it as representative as possible".

"We were not there to speak for all survivors but only to tell our own stories," he said.

"Some of our group really let him have it with both barrels - there was no question of being circumspect or guarded.

"I found it extremely intense. There was a lifetimes' suffering in that room, distilled into an hour-and-a-half. It was overwhelming. I almost wanted it to be over."

Fr McCafferty had put his own thoughts in a letter. This had been translated into both Spanish and Italian for the Pope.

"Bishop Noel encouraged me to try to help the Pope from my experience. I was the second last to speak directly to him but I was happy with that - others needed it more."

There was a lot of raw emotion expressed in that room, and Pope Francis accepted it all - he took ownership. 'I alone am responsible,' he told us. He would put his hands on his head in horror at what we were telling him

Fr McCafferty was impressed with the time and attention the Pope gave the group.

"There was no sign of him being in a hurry, even though he was meant to be going to the big event at Croke Park," he said.

"He was completely focused on the eight of us in the room, and listened intently and responded honestly."

An outworking of that is how the penitential act said by Pope Francis at the Phoenix Park Mass the next day was practically a verbatim statement of what the group had asked for.

"I was at home watching it on Sunday and I was in tears as he said it because he had done exactly what he said he would do."

While mindful that there is "no magic wand" to tackle the abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, Fr McCafferty is convinced that Pope Francis is doing his best.

"Our faith is in God. It isn't in the Pope - he is only a man who has been given a ministry of service," he said.

"Pope Francis doesn't have all the answers, and whatever he or the Church does will never be enough for some people.

"He admitted to us that he himself has not always got it right. But with us he was abject in listening to us and taking responsibility as the visible head of the Church.

"'I am responsible,' he said, and he said it so humbly. He literally put his hands up and took he complete ownership of the scandal.

"For the successor of Peter to do that was, for me, momentous."

Fr Patrick McCafferty was one of a group of eight abuse survivors who met with Pope Francis for 90 minutes to talk about their experiences.

Fr Patrick McCafferty's letter to Pope Francis

Dear Holy Father,

Thank you for the opportunity of this meeting with you today and I offer you these thoughts which might assist you, as you guide us, through this painful suffering in Christ's Body, His Church; "For if one member suffers, all suffer together with it" (1 Corinthians 12:26).

The current crisis has been going on for over 30 years now. The agony is prolonged intolerably by the continuous 'drip drip' of disturbing revelations.

A very focused and proactive approach to this crisis in the Universal Church is very necessary for healing to occur - and in many instances - for it to even begin.

Failure to grapple with this sin and crime is hindering the Church's capacity to bear witness in other vital areas, such as the right to life, the importance of marriage and the joy of family life.

Help is available to you, Holy Father, as the leader of the coalition of the willing. Progress has been made and, together, we can continue to the next stage.

The reality also, that must be honestly considered and faced, is that this issue is endemic, outside as well as within, the Church.

From the Church's perspective, nevertheless, there have been clear examples of being able to address this problem, with complete transparency and cooperation with the civil agencies and authorities, as with the Ferns and Dublin reports; these models are a good foundation for necessary openness.

Transparency, full cooperation and accountability at the highest level, are of paramount importance in restoring the sacred trust that has been violated.

Much progress has been made in this respect by Irish dioceses, including my home diocese, under its present bishop, Noel Treanor.

The reality also, that must be honestly considered and faced, is that this issue is endemic, outside as well as within, the Church.

Above all, the voices that survivors and victims hear need to be, clearly, voices of hope, that console and offer a way forward.

Hope is central to our vocation. The message that those hurt and affected hear should offer hope and not despair.

The Lord is saying to us, "comfort my people" (Isaiah 40:1). Terrible wounds are exacerbated when consolation and comforting are withheld.

There are also some priests, Holy Father, who have known the pain of false accusations and sometimes their distress too has been compounded by how they were treated by those with a duty of pastoral care towards them.

We must be mindful of them too. They also need to be consoled.

As regards those who have offended, there is no such thing as a non-person.

As Pope Benedict reminded us in his letter to the Irish Church in 2010, no-one is beyond God's mercy. You yourself, during the Jubilee of Mercy, also reminded the human race that no-one is beyond the reach of the Lord's merciful redemption.

However, rehabilitation and, where possible, reconciliation, need, of course, to go hand in hand with continuing robust safeguarding measures and accountability at every level - even the very highest level - of the Church.

Holy Father, the mercy of the Lord pardons the sins of the worst offenders when they sincerely cry out to Him.

At the same time, God's Mercy also defends the weak and champions the vulnerable, against those who abuse power and position.

For that reason, no-one in the Church - no matter how highly placed - can be exempt from scrutiny in this regard and from full accountability, if and when found wanting.

Those who cover up sin and crimes such as these, or who cause devastation by their incompetence in dealing with such matters, need to face proper and just penalties – no matter what office or position they occupy in the Church.

For many, such is the depth of hurt and the extent of the harm inflicted, that nothing will ever suffice to make amends.

I want to mention to you, for your particular solicitude, a group of survivors to whom I am close - who were abused and cruelly treated in Church-run institutions, orphanages and reformatory schools - and who, in the north of Ireland, continue to be denied justice and redress by civil authorities.

As I meet you today, I am most acutely conscious of those whose lives were cut short due to the anguish with which they had to live since their tender years - the terrible toll taken upon their mental and physical health.

Ultimately, we can only call upon the Lord, Whose Grace alone brings eternal healing, to guide and assist us along this difficult and painful path.

Fr Patrick McCafferty, PP,

Corpus Christi Parish,


Penitential act of Pope Francis at the Mass celebrated in Phoenix Park

YESTERDAY I met with eight persons who are survivors of the abuse of power, the abuse of conscience and sexual abuse.

In reflecting on what they told me, I wish to implore the Lord's mercy for these crimes and to ask forgiveness for them.

We ask forgiveness for the cases of abuse in Ireland, the abuse of power, the abuse of conscience and sexual abuse on the part of representatives of the Church.

In a special way, we ask forgiveness for all those abuses that took place in different kinds of institutions directed by men and women religious and other members of the Church.

We also ask forgiveness for cases in which many minors were exploited for their labour.

We ask forgiveness for all those times when, as a Church, we did not offer to the survivors of any type of abuse compassion and the pursuit of justice and truth by concrete actions.

We ask forgiveness.

We ask forgiveness for some members of the hierarchy who took no responsibility for these painful situations and kept silent.

We ask forgiveness.

We ask forgiveness those children who were taken away from their mothers and for all those times when so many single mothers who tried to find their children that had been taken away, or those children who tried to find their mothers, were told that this was a mortal sin.

It is not a mortal sin - it is the fourth commandment; we ask forgiveness.

May the Lord preserve and increase this sense of shame and repentance, and grant us the strength to ensure that it never happens again and that justice is done.


Pope Francis arrives on Sunday at Phoenix Park, where he celebrated Mass and appealed for forgiveness for a litany of abuses committed by the Church. Picture by Brian Lawless/PA Wire

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