On the first full day of spring in 2010, Catholic clergy mounted pulpits across Ireland to make a historic plea for forgiveness.
They read aloud a 4,500-word missive from Pope Benedict XVI that blasted church authorities in Ireland for mishandling countless child sex-abuse cases in the country. Two reports published the previous year had detailed how thousands of children were molested, raped or otherwise abused in church-run boarding schools from 1936 onward and in the Dublin archdiocese between 1975 and 2004.
“You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry,” the Pope wrote, addressing victims.
The Irish letter will ring familiar in Canada, where Pope Francis apologized to residential-school survivors in Maskwacis, Alta., during his penitential visit this week. As Canada surveys the effects of Pope Francis’s visit, and debates the church’s outstanding obligations to Indigenous peoples, it can look to Ireland for a suggestion of things to come. Though an imperfect parallel, the Irish experience portends an unsettled future.
“We’re still dealing with this issue and the fallout from it,” said Patsy McGarry, religious affairs correspondent for the Dublin-based Irish Times. “The emotional impact on our survivors is a very live matter here.”
The Irish apology addressed victims, church-goers, clergy and abusers. It expressed a degree of candor, remorse and desire to change.
In 2015, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission gave it a seal of approval, citing it as a possible template for a papal apology in Canada.
Immediate reaction within Ireland was less welcoming. Critics said Benedict’s letter avoided taking responsibility for the Vatican’s role in the scandals and offered no punishment for those involved. In a section of the letter proposing “concrete initiatives to address the situation,” he prescribed fasting, prayer and Bible readings. He also recommended a spiritual retreat for Irish clergy.
The letter did announce a formal Vatican investigation into congregations of the Irish Catholic Church touched by scandal. It would report back two years later and confirm much of what civil authorities had already found.
So what was the public impact of Benedict’s letter? Media outlets reported that the apology comforted many devout followers, but much of the country, and especially victims’ groups, rejected it.
“It wasn’t an apology,” said Colm O’Gorman, who successfully sued the Irish Diocese of Ferns in 1998 for sexual abuse he suffered as a teen and later established a support group for abuse victims. “An apology is an acceptance of responsibility for one’s own failings or the failings of one’s institutions and indicating that one is prepared to be accountable,” he said. “There is nothing of that in any statement that Pope John Paul II made, Pope Benedict XVI made and, frankly, that Pope Francis has made.”
Further reports and scandals would rock the church in Ireland in the years that followed Benedict’s letter. Pope Francis offered another apology in 2018.
Meanwhile, the church’s influence has plummeted in the country.
A 2011 poll found that just 27 per cent of Irish Catholics had a favourable view of the church and that around half of Catholics attended church regularly. By the time the 2020 pandemic rolled around, regular attendance had dropped to 27 per cent.
The average age of Irish priests is 70, Mr. McGarry said, and there are not enough men entering the priesthood to run all the country’s existing churches. Several congregations that had pledged €350-million toward compensating victims in 2009 remain about €230-million short of their goal.
“Catholicism as we knew it is in deep, deep trouble in Ireland,” Mr. McGarry said.
In Canada, just as in Ireland, no amount of apologizing will dig the church out, he said.
“The pattern is similar in our two nations, and in other countries where apologies have taken place,” he said. “There’s apologies, abject apologies, and then the church more or less wants to park it and move on. But you can’t park it. The issue keeps coming back.”
In Canada, the Pope still has a chance to prove the apology is genuine, according to Indigenous advocates, and many Catholic parishioners.
Shortly after the Pope’s Monday apology, Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, issued an eight-point to-do list for the Pope. It includes publicly rescinding a 1493 papal edict that gave rise to European claims of sovereignty in the Americas, handing over relevant residential-school records, repatriating property and remains taken from Indigenous peoples and ensuring the church pays “meaningful reparations” to victims.
“If those things don’t happen, I think there’s the danger that the apology is just hollow words,” said Annie Selak, a Catholic theologian at Georgetown University who has studied papal apologies.
Rennie Nahanee, a Catholic deacon and Squamish Nation elder, participated in the Pope’s mass at Commonwealth Stadium and even shook the pontiff’s hand. He would add one more demand to the to-do list: encouraging Indigenous language and culture in the church, a way of decolonizing an institution whose members once punished Indigenous children for speaking their home languages in residential schools. “The Vatican could start celebrating Indigenous language and culture,” he said. “It needs to be more flexible.”
And he has faith Pope Francis is up to that task. The pontiff has made a push to dissolve the clergy’s hold on power and give more control to people in the pews through a consultation process called synodalism. “The church needs to know they’re not above us and we’re not above them,” Mr. Nahanee said. “We are equals.”
In Ireland, Mr. McGarry says the old centralized model of Catholicism is dying and synodalism holds the possibility of renewal. The process has already shown that Irish parishioners overwhelmingly want women to be ordained as priests, a greater embrace of LGBTQ people and support for marginalized groups. “Such is the state of the church in Ireland today,” he said, “that people want to sweep it all aside and get back to the essence of Christianity.”
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