Belfast Telegraph

Pope must do more than just apologise to victims of abuse

Editor's Viewpoint

During the visit of Pope Francis, much has been made of the changes in Ireland since the last papal visit 39 years ago. The previous one by Pope John Paul II was the first by a pontiff to Ireland, making it historic. Ireland then was a Catholic dominated country in civic and religious life, but all has changed utterly since then.

The Republic has become a much more secular society, passing landmark laws such as the repeal of the ban on abortion and also allowing same-sex marriages. The litany of abuse by Catholic clergy and the historic ill-treatment of women and children cost the Church the moral high ground and contributed greatly to the drift away from it.

In Northern Ireland more conservative social mores still exist, but here also there has been a huge change between the two visits. Violence meant the previous Pope could not cross the border. This time Pope Francis chose not to in spite of the guarantee of a warm welcome, but he did publicly note his affection for the province and his hope the work of peace and reconciliation would continue, but diplomatically, did not urge a return to devolved government.

His visit to the Republic was primarily designed to allow him to participate in the World Meeting of Families, but much of the attention centred on his reaction to the abuse by clergy.

It is undeniable that those who were abused by clerics were treated horrendously by the Church, with their abusers moved around the country, and even when brought to justice there was little more than sympathy for their victims. That has contributed to a sometimes very shrill debate where the language has been divisive, but perhaps it will become more considered now.

On this visit Pope Francis was left in no doubt that this is an issue which will not go away, and he reacted properly by paying close attention to the pleas of the abused.

This is a hugely emotive subject and even if it is accepted that his call for forgiveness was acknowledgement that he must bear responsibility, if not for historic crimes, but for making reparation, the victims feel he must do more.

He did not set out how the Church goes forward but he certainly gave a clear understanding that he wants action to back up his own words. Getting the Vatican bureaucracy to agree is something that so far has not happened.

One of the strongest images of Pope Francis' visit was of him meeting homeless people at a Church-run centre in Dublin. He is a Pope renowned for his concern for those on the margins of society and to include the centre in his hectic schedule underlines that attitude. It was evident that the attendances at the various events were much lower than on the previous papal visit, but that must be seen in the context of the abuse controversy and the greater secular attitude in society. Attendances were still vast compared to visits by any other international figures, showing that the faith may have been weakened but is still a central part of very many people's lives, including the young.

The absence of any DUP representative at any papal event was a blunder by the party and the UUP deserves credit for showing that unionism does not need to hide its light under a bushel by sending Robbie Butler. Members and leaders of other faiths were also present and, like SDLP councillor Mairia Cahill, who attended a Royal Black Institution parade in Cookstown, none had their core values weakened but perhaps learned something new about the values of others.

Real engagement involves listening, as well as lecturing.

Belfast Telegraph

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