Belfast Telegraph

Martin O'Brien: Pope's visit could be the turning point for church mired in abuse scandals

Francis should seize opportunity to spell out how Catholicism will address the culture of cover-up, writes Martin O'Brien

The Ancient Greeks had a word that comes to mind when one contemplates this weekend's visit of the Pope to Ireland. Kairos.

Translated, it means "right or proper time".

My big Oxford English Dictionary defines Kairos as "… the propitious moment, especially for decision or action".

So, it means the opportune moment: the moment to seize an opportunity to do something important and impactful.

Many will be waiting to see if Pope Francis seizes the moment.

My abiding hope for the visit of Francis is threefold.

First, and most urgently, and building on his remarkable letter to all Catholics on Monday, that he will, finally, address the cancer of clerical sex abuse in a way that leaves no one in any doubt, especially victims and survivors, that however high you may be in the hierarchy or Curia, bishop, archbishop or cardinal, you will be accountable if you have not just perpetrated abuse but covered it up, and that you will have no hiding place from the civil and the church authorities.

Secondly, that the words and actions of this good and humble man who has engaged with the world in a special way, becoming its foremost voice of conscience on issues such as poverty, climate change, migrants and trafficking, will help create the conditions for a renewal of a Church in Ireland that is battered and bruised.

Thirdly, that his words and actions will give us much to think about, in the deepest sense, and that somehow, in the aftermath of his visit, this island, in the widest and most inclusive sense, will feel a little bit more reconciled, a little bit gentler, and a little bit kinder.

However, it goes without saying that one must be careful not to expect too much from any one person, however exalted his position, in a visit of just 36 hours. The Pope is not coming on a State visit (though with all the security and organisation it has the hallmarks of one) or even a pastoral visit to the whole country, but rather to preside at a major global Catholic Church event in Dublin, the World Meeting of Families.

He is also paying a short visit to the Marian Shrine at Knock in Co Mayo which is a bit surprising given that the Vatican let it be known that the supposed principal reason for giving Northern Ireland a miss was concern a trip north would distract from the World Meeting.

The Knock visit may be wonderful news for pilgrims from the west and midlands of Ireland - and a fantastic boon for the Shrine itself - but given time constraints it must, regrettably, mean less time for meaningful engagement with victims and survivors of clerical sex abuse.

There is, naturally, much disappointment among the Catholics here that Pope Francis is not crossing the border, making it the fourth time this region has been overlooked by a Pontiff on a journey to these islands: by John Paul II in 1979 and 1982 when he visited the Republic and Britain respectively and by Benedict XVI in 2010 when he paid a State visit to the UK.

One would expect the Pope to address some words directly to people in Northern Ireland in his speech in Dublin Castle and one would hope that there would be an indication from him of his willingness to come here on a stand-alone visit before too long.

Pope Francis's audience in the Castle will include the leaders or senior representatives of all the main Northern Ireland political parties, except for the DUP, whose decision to absent themselves is surprising and deeply regrettable, correctly described on the BBC by Alban Maginness, the most moderate of nationalists, as being insulting to Catholics, and "a gigantic mistake by Arlene Foster".

The DUP's stance contrasts with the welcome the Pope will receive from Protestant Church leaders whose attitude is probably more in keeping with the greater number in both main communities here.

This Pope is admired around the world for his humility and his prophetic stance on social justice and environmental issues.

In five years he has shifted the Church away from a theology of rules to a theology of grace, reached out to gays like no pope before him, tackled the reform of the Curia with modest results, and established a meaningful synodal process by encouraging the bishops to raise their voices on contentious issues.

However, we have still no word on the outcome of his commission that's examining the issue of women deacons, nor has he put flesh on his 2013 musings about "a deep theology of women in the Church".

But the biggest disappointment has been the Pope's failure, so far, to get a real grip on the clerical sex abuse scandals that have convulsed the Church worldwide in recent decades.

Only last week a report in Pennsylvania revealed a catalogue of unspeakable horrors, describing how 301 priests abused 1,000 children in six dioceses over a 70-year period, and how scandals were covered up by church authorities, including allegedly by a former bishop there, Donald Wuerl, now the Cardinal archbishop of Washington DC.

As is so often the case, the cover-up of scandals by cardinals and bishops - some of whom like former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington DC were alleged abusers themselves - has compounded the original crimes.

Pope Francis set up the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors to advise him on how to tackle the problem, but it has no teeth and some of its key recommendations for reform - like a tribunal to prosecute bishops who cover up abuse crimes - have been blocked by elements in the Curia.

Such a standing tribunal should be independent, have a lay majority and chairperson, and be underpinned by Canon Law.

Marie Collins, a courageous survivor of clerical abuse from Dublin, resigned from the Commission in frustration in 2017, and Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop of Dublin, said at the weekend that it needed strengthening.

Pope Francis issued a powerful unprecedented 2,000-word letter to the world's Catholics on Monday, condemning the "atrocities" of child sexual abuse and its cover-up by the Church, pledging "zero tolerance" and saying pointedly that "to say 'no' to abuse is to say 'no' to all forms of clericalism".

It would be good if in Dublin, the archdiocese where some of the worst abuses first came to light, the Pope goes further and signals at the World Meeting of Families how, in concrete terms, the Church will go about destroying the culture of cover-up that has ruined the lives of numerous victims and their families.

Let us hope that he sees this Kairos moment for what it is.

It could be a turning point rather than a missed opportunity.

Martin O'Brien is a journalist specialising in religious affairs

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