Amid fresh claims of abuse and cover-ups in the Catholic Church – this time targeting the Pope himself – dwindling numbers of Irish faithful reflect a growing disquiet. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Pope Francis accused

In 1979, the recently coronated Pope John Paul II made his pilgrimage to the land of Saint Patrick. Ever since Ireland’s patron saint, taken to the island as a slave in the 5th century, helped vanquish Celtic paganism – and left his long-venerated example of faith, humility and courage – the country’s conception of itself, and the functions and influence of its state, has been braided with Catholicism. In Ireland, the primacy of Catholic faith survived centuries of murderous conquest and persecution. Pope John Paul II was not speaking idly when he said, in his first homily before a million Irish faithful, “Through persecution and through poverty, in famine and in exile, you have kept the faith.”

By many contemporary accounts, the Pope’s visit in 1979 was a triumphal moment for Irish Catholic nationalism – over three days, half of Ireland’s population joined His Holiness for public Mass or to watch his special addresses. Today, the visit seems like a high-water mark. Already, the Catholic faith was beginning its retreat. A retreat that would accelerate in following decades after the exposure of systemic sex crimes in the church, and the wickedness of Ireland’s Catholic system of “baby and mother” homes – bleak refuges for single mothers, and separate ones for their children and orphans.

In 1979, John Paul II powerfully invoked the history of Irish Catholic persecution. He never considered the opposite: What happens when the Irish laity have been persecuted by their own church? When their own children have been raped, and their abuse systemically encouraged? What happens when the bodies of their neglected children, imperiously removed from their mothers’ care, have been dumped in mass graves and septic tanks?

“Ireland, that has overcome so many difficult moments in her history, is being challenged in a new way today, for she is not immune from the influence of ideologies and trends which present-day civilisation and progress carry with them,” Pope John Paul II said in 1979. “The very capability of mass media to bring the whole world into your homes produces a new kind of confrontation with values and trends that up until now have been alien to Irish society.”

He was right. In the decades to follow, Irish society was confronted by alien values broadcast by the mass media, such as the news that hundreds of malnourished babies who died in these homes had been tossed away as heretical filth. Today, partly because of the “mass media”, Pope John Paul II’s proposition is reversed: it’s the church now wrestling with its own profoundly “difficult moment”, and it’s for the remaining Irish faithful to offer their forgiveness.

But there are fewer of them to offer it. Nearly 40 years passed before another papal visit to Ireland, and last week Pope Francis encountered a very different country to that of his predecessor. In the land of Saint Patrick, where the Catholic Church is now as much spectre as spirit, the Pope’s Mass in Phoenix Park attracted just 130,000 people. His first words were penitential. Fewer Irish are attending Mass, and fewer are entering the seminary. When John Paul II made his Irish pilgrimage, contraception, divorce and abortion were outlawed – none of which is true today in the country that voted to legalise same-sex marriage in 2015.

But Ireland’s secular transformation was the least of the Pope’s woes, during what has been an extraordinary month for the Catholic Church. As Francis visited Ireland, a former Vatican ambassador to the United States published a 4000-word testimony, personally implicating the Pope in the cover-up of an abusive former archbishop. America’s oldest Catholic newspaper, National Catholic Register, reproduced the letter by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, in its entirely, on its website. This accusation came shortly after a grand jury in Pennsylvania released a near-1400-page report on Catholic clergy abuse in the state.


“We, the members of this grand jury, need you to hear this,” the report opened. “We know some of you have heard some of it before. There have been other reports about child sex abuse within the Catholic Church. But never on this scale. For many of us, those earlier stories happened someplace else, someplace away. Now we know the truth: it happened everywhere.”

The inquiry was one of the largest of its kind in US history. The grand jury subpoenaed, and examined, half a million pages from the church’s “secret archives”. “They contained credible allegations against over three hundred predator priests,” the report stated. “Over one thousand child victims were identifiable, from the church’s own records. We believe the real number – of children whose records were lost, or who were afraid ever to come forward – is in the thousands.”

The internal documents were also examined by specialist FBI agents, who later testified that a particular pattern of concealment emerged. It was a playbook, they said, for preserving the church’s reputation – minimise the abuse with euphemism; conduct deliberately inadequate investigations; transfer a priest to a new location if the community becomes aware of his crimes; and “above all, don’t tell the police ... handle it like a personnel matter, ‘in house’.”

Inquiries all around the world have found the same playbook. “We ask for 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 by concrete actions,” Pope Francis said in Ireland last Sunday. “We ask for forgiveness for some members of the hierarchy who took no responsibility for these painful situations and kept silent. We ask forgiveness.”

But was Pope Francis one of those who took no responsibility? In July, the Pope accepted the resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, after an investigation found that an allegation he had abused a minor was credible. A welter of accusations followed.

In his excoriating letter, Archbishop Viganò, a rock-ribbed conservative who served as the Vatican’s ambassador to Washington for five years, alleged that his predecessors had warned the Vatican about McCarrick before at least 2011. Viganò also wrote that he had personally warned the Pope in 2013. “‘Holy Father, I don’t know if you know Cardinal McCarrick, but if you ask the Congregation of Bishops, there is a dossier this thick about him. He corrupted generations of seminarians and priests, and Pope Benedict ordered him to withdraw to a life of prayer and penance.”

Viganò called the Pope a liar and said, for the sake of the church, he should resign. Pope Francis, who has read the letter, has refused to comment, effectively saying that it’s beneath his dignity and that journalists will make up their own minds.

It is the most brutally public expression of the contest between traditionalist clergy, faithful to the legacy of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, and more liberal reformers buoyed by the Jesuit pope’s vision of a more inclusive church. Pope Francis has sought to emphasise mercy and compassion over any severe application of dogma. Last year, the pontiff declined to renew the appointment of the Vatican’s chief theologian, the conservative Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller. It was a pointed move, given the influential role is customarily occupied until retirement. Müller had been critical of elements of Pope Francis’s 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia (The Joy of Love), and a letter challenging the Pope on it, signed by four cardinals, was scandalously leaked.

As was another letter signed by Müller in 2015, petitioning the Pope to reconfigure a bishop’s conference that he, and 12 other cardinals, argued improperly favoured liberals. Cardinal George Pell was another signatory.

As ambassador to the United States, Viganò earned the wrath of Francis when, during a papal visit to the US in 2015, Viganò arranged for Kim Davis – a county clerk in Kentucky who refused to grant same-sex couples marriage licences – to meet the Pope. Word leaked, Pope Francis was furious with the publicity, and Viganò was removed from his position.

Viganò’s letter seems to suggest Pope Francis is an agent for a corrupting permissiveness in the church, and he criticises liberal reformers. It also conflates homosexuality with paedophilia, and says: “The homosexual networks present in the Church must be eradicated ... These networks, which are now widespread in many dioceses, seminaries, religious orders, etc. act under the concealment of secrecy and lies with the power of octopus tentacles, and strangle innocent victims and priestly vocations, and are strangling the entire Church.”

Reports then emerged that Pope Benedict XVI had “confirmed” elements of Viganò’s allegations, only for this to be refuted as “fake news” by the ex-pontiff’s secretary. A high-stakes game seemed to have commenced. Regardless, given the seriousness of the accusations – and the level of detail that comprise them – it’s to be seen whether Pope Francis’s approach of dignified silence is either appropriate or sustainable.


Last month, Richard Sipe – a former priest, psychotherapist and respected scholar of clergy abuse – died at the age of 85. Sipe assisted the investigative team of The Boston Globe, whose uncovering of church abuse was made into the Oscar-winning film Spotlight. Sipe had been warning the church, ineffectually, for years about McCarrick’s abuses.

In his letter, Viganò approvingly quotes Sipe, though the two men wouldn’t have agreed on the psychic origins of the abuse. In a landmark report, Sipe once estimated that more than half of America’s priests were sexually active, and that this common failure to uphold celibacy created terrible networks of secrets and hypocrisy. “Sooner or later it will become broadly obvious that there is a systemic connection between the sexual activity by, among and between clerics in positions of authority and control, and the abuse of children,” Sipe wrote in a 2016 letter to the church. “When men in authority – cardinals, bishops, rectors, abbots, confessors, professors – are having or have had an unacknowledged-secret-active-sex-life under the guise of celibacy, an atmosphere of tolerance of behaviors within the system is made operative.”

But the implications and consequences of celibacy are not yet obvious to the church, which is not only experiencing its own long penance, but a bitter contest for its soul.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 1, 2018 as "A flawed church". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.