Given how badly the Catholic Church has dealt with its litany of scandals in Ireland, does Pope Francis owe Ireland a full apology?
At an estimated cost of €20 million to the Irish people, the forthcoming visit of Pope Francis to Ireland promises to be very different from the emotional 1979 event in which Pope John Paul II seemed to capture the hearts and minds of a generation.
Given how poorly the Vatican has dealt with a litany of scandals involving the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, many people are now beginning to ask whether the current pontiff has a duty to offer a full apology to the Irish people.
Who should he meet and what should he say during his visit to the island in August?
The Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, has told the Irish media that the pontiff would like to visit a prison during his August trip.
“He’d like to go to a prison,” Archbishop Martin said last December. “Everywhere he goes, he goes to a prison.”
The Papal visit looks set to be a pivotal moment for the Catholic Church, recovering lost trust after years of scandals involving clerical sex abuse, the enslavement of women in Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes, and the imprisonment of children in industrial schools, in conjunction with the Irish State.
It is going to be a very different affair from the joyous 1979 tour of the country by Pope John Paul II when, as youngsters, we walked for miles in our thousands for huge communal celebrations in places like Galway Racecourse, Knock Shrine, and the Phoenix Park.
Those massive gatherings almost four decades ago took place in a different, far more innocent Ireland, in which the voices of victims had yet to emerge and so many appalling secrets were hidden away from public view.
A million people attended the Papal Mass at the Phoenix Park in Dublin and 250,000 of us got up at dawn to hear John Paul II profess his love for the youth of Ireland in Galway.
If Pope Francis is looking for a prison, we had more than one type of them here in Ireland.
Many of us who walked across Galway City for the huge gathering at Ballybrit would have passed by the Magdalene Laundry in the city center, oblivious to the fact that young, middle aged, and older women were incarcerated inside.
Some of them spent three or four decades effectively as slaves in this women’s prison, just meters from Eyre Square and the pubs and shops in the heart of the city.
When Pope John Paul said “I love you” to the young people of Ireland the Magdalene Laundries were still in business all over Ireland, their vans driving around the cities and towns, picking up the dirty linen of the great and the good.
The Galway laundry only ceased operating as a business in 1984. As thousands walked to the racecourse on the east side, the innocent Catholic children of the city had no idea of the hardships, the despair, and the loneliness hidden away behind those city center walls.
It would be nice to think that Pope Francis, during his time in Ireland, would meet some of the women who were locked up behind those walls and those of many other laundries for so-called ‘fallen women’ throughout Ireland.
Such as Angela Fahy, a frail woman who walks on a stick now, who reminded us of the terrible cruelty of the place during an emotional memorial ceremony to remember the women who died inside the Galway laundry with flowers last month.
She spoke of the terrible shame placed on Irish women for the ‘crime’ of having babies outside of marriage, right up to the 1980s, or the way in which families and the State colluded with the Church to lock these innocent women away for decades.
Angela made it clear that it was not just the Church which was to blame.
She remembered one girl who managed to persuade a workman to sneak a letter out to her sister in Salthill, only for her sister to report her to the nuns and return a message to the distraught slave that she should never try to make contact with her family again.
The whole of Irish society was to blame, but the Catholic Church played a pivotal role in our nation’s shame.
Angela and the thousands of other survivors like her have never really received a proper apology from the Vatican for the hardships they endured, or compensation for all the years they slaved away washing clothes without any payment from the nuns.
If he comes to Galway, I would love to see Pope Francis meet Peter Mulryan (now 74), an amazing man whose mother spent more than 30 years in that same Magdalene Laundry.
It would be incredible if Peter could tell the Pope about the lack of hope in his mother’s eyes, the complete lack of spirit when he finally tracked her down to the institution in the center of my city. Life in the Magdalene Laundry had broken her and there was no joy in her eyes, even when she met her grandchild.
I would love for Peter to tell Pope Francis about his four-year search for the little sister he never knew he had until 2014, as he told me while he stood beside his mother’s grave in Bohermore Cemetery.
Perhaps he could bring him to the place where his mother is buried in a communal plot with other “fallen women” whose crime was to give birth to beautiful people like him in a harsh and judgemental land.
Or he could bring Pope Francis 25 miles up the road, to Tuam, to a place which is now infamous all across the globe.
For Peter, the sewage tank and unmarked grave where up to 796 children may or may not be buried has a significance which will not go away.
Peter is a surviving “Tuam Baby”. He lived there before he was sent out to a family in which he endured many years of beatings and, now, after all these years, he wants the truth.
He has never received an apology or any kind of explanation from the Bon Secours nuns as to why he was imprisoned in the Tuam Mother and Baby Home as a youngster and treated as a pariah in the local school.
Or why they destroyed the records from the site which might have helped him find out what happened to his little sister, whether she was, in fact, one of the “Tuam Babies” or whether she was sold off for adoption to a family in the United States or Canada.
Her life was so insignificant in the eyes of ‘Catholic Ireland’, it seemed, that nobody bothered to record her death. Perhaps Pope Francis could hear Peter talk, as he does so eloquently these days, about the pain of being stigmatized from birth.
Peter and people like him are still experiencing a monstrous injustice in terms of their inability to find out what happened at Mother and Baby Homes all across the country or to receive a full and proper apology for the pain they endured.
It’s pretty hard to have a good shot at life when you are told you are “illegitimate” or a “bastard” from a very young age. Peter, like many other survivors, could teach Pope Francis so much about the resilience of the human spirit and how people who endured so much can still build amazing, if ordinary, lives.
If he does make it to Tuam, perhaps Pope Francis could pop a few miles out the Dunmore road, to meet a quiet, unassuming woman whose tireless research has turned her into a national hero.
Catherine Corless is not looking for fame or fortune, but she might be able tell Pope Francis about the hostility and derision she came up against when she tried to find out what really happened at those unmarked, mass graves in Tuam.
She might outline how a professional PR person, hired by the Bon Secours order, ridiculed her research before Catherine was vindicated in full by the Irish Government last year.
Given that Pope Francis is attending the World Meeting of Families, in Dublin, there are quite a few people in Dublin he might care to meet as well.
For a man who has done so much for the poor and the marginalized, it might be of interest to Pope Francis to note the number of troubled people living on the streets who are trying to put memories of childhood abuse by the clergy behind them.
Before he boards the plane from Rome, he might take a look at the nine-year-old Murphy Report which found that four Dublin archbishops Dublin had responded to clerical child abuse with “denial, arrogance, and cover-up” in the words of the report.
He might talk to the families of people who grew up between the 1960s and 1980s when serial abusers were moved around from one Dublin parish to another with no seeming regard for the welfare of future victims. Out of sight, out of mind.
He might visit the victims who never rebuilt their lives, those who live on the streets now or try to numb the brutal pain through alcohol or drug addiction. It won’t be hard to find them in our Irish prisons.
He might explain to them the concept of “mental reservation” which allowed senior members of the clergy to mislead Dublin families and the authorities without being seen as liars in the eyes of the Catholic Church.
In 1979, there was huge disappointment among the Catholics of Northern Ireland when Pope John Paul was unable to cross the border. Due to the Troubles, which were ripping Ireland apart at the time, he only made it as far as Drogheda.
North of the border, he might talk to the victims of the late Fr Brendan Smyth, a child abuser who was free to travel the land and find new victims even though the most senior cleric in Ireland, Cardinal Cathan Daly, was aware of the appalling allegations against him.
How those who were abused as small children would love to hear a full and frank apology for the inaction and cover-up which allowed Fr Smyth’s abuse to continue. Senior members of the clergy, by failing to notify colleagues, effectively facilitated this brutality against an estimated 140 Irish children.
From Dublin to Galway, and Belfast to Cork, there are people all over Ireland who are still suffering because of the terrible things they endured as children.
The damage done in the past cannot be undone.
But meeting them, hearing them, and providing a full and frank apology for the all the pain caused to the Irish people could turn the August 2018 Papal Visit into a pivotal moment for a Church which still has so much to do to regain the trust of a wounded people.
By putting the victims first, the visit of Pope Francis to Ireland could yet transpire to be a far more significant event than the 1979 papal visit which now looks like a dying kick of a more authoritarian, more austere, more judgemental, less honest, and less joyous Ireland.
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