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By Cathleen Falsani 8-26-2018

DUBLIN, Ireland—Pope Francis wrapped up a whirlwind tour of Ireland by issuing his most detailed public apology to date for the horrific abuses suffered by generations of Irish families at the hands of the Catholic Church during an outdoor Mass for an estimated 130,000 people in Dublin’s Phoenix Park.

In a litany of prayers described as “off-the-cuff” by spokespeople for the World Meeting of Families, the international event that brought the pontiff to Dublin this week, Pope Francis begged forgiveness for a laundry list of atrocities wrought by the church and its emissaries. He prayed:

We ask forgiveness for the abuses in Ireland—abuses of power, conscience, and sexual abuses perpetrated by members with roles of responsibility in the church. In a special way we ask pardon for all the abuses committed in various types of institutions run by male or female religious and by other members of the church.

And we ask forgiveness for those cases of exploitation through manual work that so many young women and men were subjected to. We ask forgiveness. We ask forgiveness for the time that in the church we did not show the survivors of whatever kind of abuse compassion and seeking injustice and truth through concrete actions, we ask for forgiveness.

We ask forgiveness for some members of the church’s hierarchy who did not take charge of these painful situations and kept quiet. We ask forgiveness. We ask for forgiveness for all those times in which many single mothers were told that to seek their children after they were separated from them, and said to these daughters and sons themselves, that this was a mortal sin. This is not a mortal sin. We ask for forgiveness.

Lord, sustain and increase this state of shame and give us strength to work for justice. Amen. Forgive us our sins and bring us to everlasting life.

The crowds gathered in Phoenix Park greeted Francis’ mea culpa with a smattering of applause. It was at once highly anticipated and unexpected. Many here had called publicly for the pontiff to make an extraordinary overture of remorse during his visit to Ireland, the first papal visit here since Pope John Paul celebrated Mass in Phoenix Park in September 1979.

The litany of apology during the Mass came a few hours after Francis also publicly apologized for the abuse suffered by the Irish people during a brief pilgrimage to Knock in the west of Ireland — the location of an alleged apparition by the Virgin Mary in 1879 — Sunday morning, where the pope prayed God’s forgiveness for ”these sins and for the scandal and betrayal felt by so many others in God’s family.”

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A father and his daughters attend Mass at Phoenix Park in Dublin. Photo by Cathleen Falsani for Sojourners

During his not-quite-two-day visit to Ireland this weekend, Pope Francis met privately with a number of survivors of church abuse, including the victims of pedophile priests, the Magdalene laundries, mother-and-baby homes, work houses, industrial schools, and other forms of ecclesial abuse.

During that meeting, reportedly two survivors who were born in one of Ireland’s mother-and-baby homes, explained to the pope how the nuns who ran the home would tell mothers whose children had been forcibly taken away from them, that it was a “mortal sin” to try to contact their children. They asked Francis to mention it in the Mass Sunday. And he did.

The Sunday apologies also came just hours after the conservative U.S. Catholic publication National Catholic Register published a 7,000-word letter by the former papal nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, claiming Pope Francis knew about sexual misconduct allegations against Theodore McCarrick years ago and did nothing about the behavior of the former cardinal-archbishop of Washington, D.C. McCarrick resigned in disgrace late last month after the U.S. church received a credible accusation that he sexually abused a minor in 1971.

Asked about the letter from Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò in a news conference aboard the Aug. 26 flight back to Rome after the two-day visit to Ireland, Francis advised journalists to "read the statement attentively and make your own judgment."

"I will not say a single word on this," the pope said of the letter, according to the National Catholic Reporter. "I think this statement speaks for itself, and you have the sufficient journalistic capacity to draw conclusions."

"When some time passes and you have your conclusions, maybe I will speak," said Francis. "But I would like that your professional maturity carries out this task."

Further, Viganò — a theological and social conservative who long has been among the pope’s most enthusiastic critics — claims Pope Francis ignored restrictions his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI had placed on McCarrick’s public ministry years earlier when the Vatican learned of his alleged sexual misconduct with seminarians and other adult men.

Viganò is calling for Francis and several other Catholic bishops (including Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich and Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, both appointed by Francis) who he says were complicit in allowing McCarrick’s abusive behavior to go unchecked, to resign. The former nuncio has a long list of complaints against Pope Francis and his cronies, including apparently ignoring ecclesiastical protocol by consulting with McCarrick as a “trusted advisor” instead of the papal nuncio (i.e., Viganò himself) about the appointment of Cupich, Tobin, and others.  Late Sunday, Cupich, who said he found Viganò's pronouncements "astonishing," responded to the ex-nuncio's claims in a lengthy statement HERE.

Viganò and Pope Francis have a history. In 2016, Francis removed Viganò from his position as papal nuncio not long after the Vatican insider invited the controversial figure Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused on religious grounds to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, to meet the pope during his papal visit to Washington in 2015. Davis’ presence apparently blindsided the pontiff and prompted the Vatican to issue a rare clarification about the meeting.

“The brief meeting between Mrs. Kim Davis and Pope Francis at the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington, D.C. has continued to provoke comments and discussion,” the Vatican statement said. “Pope Francis met with several dozen persons who had been invited by the Nunciature to greet him as he prepared to leave Washington for New York City. Such brief greetings occur on all papal visits and are due to the Pope’s characteristic kindness and availability. The only real audience granted by the Pope at the Nunciature was with one of his former students and his family.”

The “real audience” the statement refers to was with the pontiff’s former student, Yayo Grassi, who is gay and brought his partner of 19 years, Iwan Bagus, with him to visit with Pope Francis at the nuncio’s Washington home.

The former nuncio is staunchly anti-gay and openly blames homosexuals for the clergy sex abuse crisis, while Pope Francis is more circumspect when it comes to LGBTQ issues and the church, famously answering a reporter’s question about gay Christian believers: “Who am I to judge?”

“Now in the United States a chorus of voices is rising especially from the lay faithful, and has recently been joined by several bishops and priests, asking that all those who, by their silence, covered up McCarrick’s criminal behavior, or who used him to advance their career or promote their intentions, ambitions and power in the Church, should resign,” Viganò wrote. “In this extremely dramatic moment for the universal Church, he must acknowledge his mistakes and, in keeping with the proclaimed principle of zero tolerance, Pope Francis must be the first to set a good example for cardinals and bishops who covered up McCarrick’s abuses and resign along with all of them.”

After the conclusion of the Phoenix Park Mass, Pope Francis made one last stop on his way to the airport to meet with Irish bishops before his flight took off for Italy. While the event was not open to the public, a copy of his prepared remarks released to media in advance of the meeting, the pope planned once again to speak about the scandal of clerical abuse in Ireland.

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Dublin's Phoenix Park holds hosts Mass during Pope Francis' visit. Photo by Cathleen Falsani for Sojourners

Pope Francis said, according to his prepared remarks:

A recurrent theme of my visit, of course, has been the church’s need to acknowledge and remedy, with evangelical honesty and courage, past failures with regard to the protection of children and vulnerable adults,” “In recent years, you as a body have resolutely moved forward, not only by undertaking paths of purification and reconciliations with victims of abuse, but also, with the help of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Church in Ireland, by establishing a stringent set of norms aimed at ensuring the safety of young persons.

In these years, all of us have had our eyes opened to the gravity and extent of sexual abuse in various social settings. In Ireland, as elsewhere, the honesty and integrity with which the church chooses to confront this painful chapter of her history can offer an example and a warning to society as a whole. Upheavals of recent years have tested the traditionally strong faith of the Irish people. Yet they have also offered the opportunity for an internal renewal of the church in this country and pointed to new ways of envisioning its life and mission.

At the time of publication, the Vatican has not yet responded to calls for comment.

But Pope Francis is flying home to Rome Sunday evening with a phalanx of journalists from the Vatican press corps and elsewhere on board the chartered Aer Lingus plane “St. Aidan” that, for the occasion, was re-christened “Shepherd One.” Francis typically holds impromptu press conferences with the reporters who travel with him on papal flights.

This report was updated at 6:43 p.m. ET to include Pope Francis' comments aboard the papal plane. 

Cathleen Falsani

Cathleen Falsani is an award-winning religion journalist and author of several nonfiction books. She is co-host of the new audio magazine/podcast The Shwell. Follow her on Twitter @GodGrrl.

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