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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Pope Francis begs forgiveness from victims of Church abuse

Former Vatican official claims head of Catholic Church knew of allegations against US cardinal for years without acting

Pope Francis leads prayers at the Drum Crescent in Knock, County Mayo on August 26, 2018. AFP
Pope Francis leads prayers at the Drum Crescent in Knock, County Mayo on August 26, 2018. AFP

Pope Francis on Sunday asked for forgiveness from victims of sexual exploitation by Catholic clergy as he continued his tour of Ireland where years of abuse scandals have shattered the Church's former dominance.

On the first papal visit to Ireland in almost four decades, Francis privately met 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 called for him to resign, saying Francis knew 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 its wishes.

The dwindling 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.

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.

Pope Francis arrives at the Knock Shrine in County Mayo on the second day of his visit to Ireland. AP Photo
Pope Francis arrives at the Knock Shrine in County Mayo on the second day of his visit to Ireland. AP Photo

Some of those who turned out on a misty morning in Knock, 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 Irish midlands to attend the Mass.

Vatican officials on Sunday declined to comment on an 11-page letter given to conservative Roman Catholic media outlets in which Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano said he had told Francis in 2013 that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had faced extensive accusations of sexually abusing lower-ranking seminarians and priests.

Archbishop Vigano also accused a long list of current and past Vatican officials and US church officials of covering up the McCarrick case.

"Pope Francis has repeatedly asked for total transparency in the Church," he wrote.

"In this extremely dramatic moment for the universal Church, he must acknowledge his mistakes and, in keeping with the proclaimed principle of zero tolerance, Pope Francis must be the first to set a good example for cardinals and bishops who covered up McCarrick’s abuses and resign along with all of them."

McCarrick became the first cardinal in living memory to resign his position in the Church leadership after a review concluded that allegations he had sexually abused a 16-year-old boy were credible.

He has said that he had "absolutely no recollection" of the alleged abuse of the teenager 50 years ago but has not commented on the other allegations.

In a speech to Irish government authorities on Saturday, Francis cited measures taken by his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, to respond to the clergy abuse crisis. But he provided no new indications that he would take forceful action to hold bishops accountable for protecting children or to sanction them when they do not.

"The failure of ecclesial authorities ... to adequately address these repugnant crimes has rightly given rise to outrage and remains a source of pain and shame for the Catholic community," the pope said. "I myself share these sentiments."

One 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," Mr Redmond said.

But others who took part in sporadic protests around Dublin on Saturday were not convinced.

"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 family name, as she waited with other protesters for the Popemobile to pass.

"He shouldn't have come."

Pope Francis receives flowers from children after arriving in Knock. Vatican Media via Reuters
Pope Francis receives flowers from children after arriving in Knock. Vatican Media via Reuters

The pontiff is in Ireland to close the 2018 World Meeting of Families – a global Catholic gathering that addressed issues including the treatment of gay people in the church.

But street vendors in Dublin selling papal souvenirs have complained of sluggish trade, as protesters rubbed shoulders with devout Catholics in the streets of the city.

In Tuam, a town in western Ireland, a silent vigil was planned for Sunday in solidarity with victims of "mother and baby" homes – institutions accused of being punishment hostels for unwed pregnant women.

"Significant quantities" of baby remains found in makeshift graves at the site of one such home in Tuam last year shocked the country.

Multiple investigationss in Ireland have found church leaders protected hundreds of predatory priests and former Irish president Mary McAleese revealed this month that the Vatican had sought to keep church documents inaccessible to government investigators.

The abuse scandals in Ireland are part of a worldwide crisis for the Vatican.

A devastating report this month accused more than 300 priests in the US state of Pennsylvania of abusing more than 1,000 children since the 1950s.

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Read more:

Pope urged to tackle Irish church resistance to move on abuse

Exclusive: Vatican won't pay for cardinal's defence

'There's going to be a raid': Chilean prosecutor forces Church to give up secrets

Australian archbishop gets one-year sentence for concealing child abuse

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