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On Saturday, Pope Francis travels to Ireland. Still a predominantly Catholic country, it's been buffeted by clerical sex abuse scandals and widespread mistreatment of the faithful by church institutions. The Vatican says the pope will meet with abuse victims while there. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports that Francis is under intense pressure to tackle head-on the biggest crisis of his papacy.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: In Ireland, the church used to be more important than the state.
THOMAS REESE: The clergy worked hand-in-glove with the government.
POGGIOLI: Jesuit priest Father Thomas Reese is senior analyst at Religion News Service.
REESE: They were very powerful in their villages and in their parishes. You know, what the pastors said was the law of the land practically.
POGGIOLI: But in the last 10 years, there's been a wave of revelations of decades of cover-ups of priests abusing minors, of the mistreatment of women in notorious institutes run by nuns, of the forced adoption by Catholic agencies of babies of unmarried women and of corporal abuse of children in church-run state schools. Paddy Agnew is a journalist who covers the Vatican for Irish media.
PADDY AGNEW: Then they discovered that these institutions to whom they had entrusted their hearts, minds and souls and, above all, their children were cheating on them. They abused their children. They were burying the babies in mass burial grounds at so-called homes for unmarried women.
POGGIOLI: Church attendance has plummeted, and Agnew points out that Irish rejection of church authority is so intense that a majority voted for same-sex marriage and abortion.
AGNEW: You can forgive your enemies, but they're not going to forgive the Catholic Church for that.
POGGIOLI: Former Irish President Mary McAleese, who has been scathing in her critiques of church authorities and the Vatican, wonders if Francis will grasp what she calls the horrible, dark side of the Catholic experience that left no Irish family untouched.
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MARY MCALEESE: I ask myself when the pope comes, where is the pastoral need in my country, and will he see it? Will he feel it? Will he intuit it? And will he respond to it? And I hope he will.
POGGIOLI: The church is reeling from simultaneous sex abuse scandals in Chile and Australia and in the U.S., where a Pennsylvania grand jury reported on seven decades of priests' abuse of more than 1,000 minors. In response, Francis issued a letter to Catholics seeking their help to root out this culture of death and vowing to prevent further cover-ups of these crimes. We showed no care for the little ones, he admitted. We abandoned them.
But lack of specific measures to ensure accountability of bishops accused of cover-ups angered many in Ireland. A tweet by abuse survivor Marie Collins said working on it is not an acceptable explanation for decades of delay. As for the pope's appeal to undertake fasting and prayer to feel abuse victims' pain, Irish Times religion correspondent Patsy McGarry commented, give me a break. During Francis' two-day visit, Catholics in Ireland and across the world will be listening carefully.
JOSHUA MCELWEE: If he takes a nagging tone, if he says that Ireland has done wrong, he's essentially lost the plot.
POGGIOLI: Joshua McElwee is Vatican correspondent of the National Catholic Reporter.
MCELWEE: And they want him to also acknowledge the Vatican's role that there was directives from on high to protect the church even though it might hurt more victims or place a priest in a situation that would hurt more victims.
POGGIOLI: Francis has often failed to deliver on promised reforms. During what may become one of the most consequential trips of his papacy, Catholics want to see him take concrete steps to eradicate the Vatican's centuries-old culture of secrecy and clerical self-protection. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.
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