'If there's a God, why was my uncle abused by a priest?': Ireland struggles to keep faith in the Church

Pope Francis stays silent over sex abuse claims

Christopher Lamb watches a new Ireland try to come to terms with a Church beset by a child abuse scandal

Rising at the crack of dawn and braving pelting rain and driving winds, Irish Catholics made their way for a Mass with Pope Francis in Dublin on Sunday.

The hundreds of thousands of believers who turned out in Phoenix Park must have felt disconnected from a papal visit that was dominated by the sexual abuse scandal inside the Church.

Francis’ two-day visit to Ireland saw him come face-to-face with the rawness of the abuse crisis in the country that has become the Ground Zero for what is arguably the gravest crisis facing the Church in almost 500 years.

It was striking that when John Paul II visited Ireland 39 years ago, more than a million people turned out in Phoenix Park for the papal mass in what was the biggest gathering of people in Irish history. While organisers predicted 500,000 would attend Francis’ Mass, estimates put it the attendance figure at just 200,000.

A combination of weather, security and organisational challenges in a papal visit will all have been factors in the low numbers but anger about abuse and the dramatic changes in over recent years in Irish society played a significant part.

The Church in Ireland is also struggling to connect with a younger generation, many of whom don’t attend Mass and have had their faith damaged by scandals.

“If there is a God then why was my uncle abused by a priest?” Aoife Monaghan, 22, told me last weekend.

An aerial view of the crowd at Phoenix Park in Dublin. It is thought around 200,000 people turned up – far below the numbers anticipated. (Photo: Liam McBurney/PA via AP)

There is a palpable feeling of betrayal over the abuse that took place, particularly given the dominant role the Chruch played in Ireland for such a long time. That is no longer the case, as Ireland’s Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, told the Pope. He pointed out laws passed since John Paul II’s visit allowing for divorce, same-sex marriage and a referendum vote which will allow legal abortions.

“The Ireland of the 21st century is a very different place today than it was in the past,” the Taoiseach said during a speech in Dublin Castle last Saturday.

But Mr Varadkar was honest enough to admit that the state had relied on the Church for welfare, education, and healthcare in the country, and took responsibility on behalf of the state for past abuses.

It was, he accepted, both the Church and the state that were responsible for the horrors of the mother and baby homes, and the Magdalene laundries, where single mothers had their children put up for adoption and were forced into slave labour.

The Pope, who repeatedly apologised for the abuse and its cover-up while in Dublin, told journalists on the plane back home afterwards that it was while in Ireland that he became aware of these homes.

Within moments of arriving in Dublin Ireland’s Minister for Childhood, Katherine Zappone spoke to him in Italian about the harrowing story of a mass grave at the Tuam mother and baby home which is now being investigated by the state. Zappone has sent him a memo on the topic and how the Church could help which he says he will be studying.

Despite the overwhelming emphasis on abuse, the Pope told reporters on his flight back to Rome that he “found so much faith in Ireland.” He added: “The Irish have suffered so much from the scandals, but they know how to distinguish the truth from half-truths.”

There is also resilience to the faith in ordinary Irish believers who have braved what has been an unending storm of scandal. The Catholic faith, which played such a vital role in keeping Irish identity alive under British rule, is still interwoven into the character of the country.

“Modern Ireland is still a country with faith and spirit and values,” Mr Varadkar told the Pope.

The question is whether Ireland will keep faith with the Church.