This is either the best or the worst time for a papal visit to Ireland. It’s easy to understand why it might be the worst. Consider these news stories from just the past week:
■ A grand jury report on six dioceses in Pennsylvania found that 300 priests had abused more than 1,000 people over a 70-year period.
■ The US bishops urged the Vatican to formally investigate how Theodore McCarrick was able to become Cardinal Archbishop of Washington DC despite warnings that he was a sexual predator.
■ Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston withdrew from the World Meeting of Families in Dublin to investigate claims of sexual misconduct at his archdiocesan seminary.
■ Police raided the offices of the Chilean bishops’ conference amid suspicions of an abuse cover-up.
■ Australian Archbishop Philip Wilson was ordered to serve a maximum 12-month sentence in home detention for concealing abuse.
Given that the Church is reeling from a worldwide abuse crisis, this doesn’t seem like the right time for Pope Francis to visit Ireland, a nation profoundly damaged by the crimes of churchmen. Indeed, a well-known Belfast priest, Fr Patrick McCafferty, recently urged the Pope to cancel the trip.
Speaking from the pulpit, he said: “I would ask our Holy Father the Pope not to come to Ireland. I say that as his faithful son, who loves him and would defend him with my life. I ask the Pope not to come on account of the betrayal, the destruction and entire loss of credibility.”
Fr McCafferty, himself a survivor of clerical abuse, is right about the scale of devastation in Ireland. But there might be another way of looking at the papal visit this weekend. This could be an opportunity for Pope Francis, who on Monday issued a powerful letter to the world’s Catholics on abuse, to confront the crisis head-on.
The Pope is expected to meet abuse survivors privately during his packed two-day trip. But he can also use his public addresses to show that he grasps the depth of the crisis and to promise to do everything in his power to protect the vulnerable.
This will not, of course, be enough to heal the wounds of abuse survivors. But we shouldn’t underestimate the power of the Pope’s presence or the consoling force of his words. Speaking at Westminster Cathedral in 2010, Benedict XVI expressed his deep sorrow at the “unspeakable crimes” of clergy. The Church was suffering then, as it is now, from wave after wave of scandal. But something changed when the Pope directly addressed the subject under the international media spotlight.
At the start of this year, Pope Francis still appeared to side instinctively with bishops. In Chile, he accused abuse victims of “calumny”. But afterwards he despatched investigators to the country, prompting the resignations of almost the entire Chilean hierarchy. While the scandal still rages, the Pope himself has travelled a long way in understanding abuse. In Dublin this weekend he can share his hard-won experience with the waiting world.
An emblematic failure
The collapse of the Morandi bridge in Genoa will have repercussions long after the dead are laid to rest. The catastrophe is a revelatory parable of much that is wrong with modern Italy.
Bridges built by the Romans are still sound, but the Morandi bridge lasted less than 50 years. Was its construction compromised from the first or was it simply a matter of poor maintenance? In either case, were the Mafia to blame, or was it the fault of the managing company which was making millions in toll charges? While elements in the government try to blame Brussels, many Italians will have no difficulty in fixing the blame on dark forces beyond government control, either in organised crime or big business, which, to many, are inextricably entwined. The disaster will reinforce the myth, not entirely baseless, that ordinary Italians are at the mercy of such forces. This undermines Italy’s democracy.
The country has been experiencing severe economic difficulty for some time, and this disaster will not help. The Morandi bridge, which served as Genoa’s bypass, is a vital artery, linking Italy to France and Spain. Its loss creates a severe bottleneck. Replacing the bridge or building a viable alternative route will take years, for Italy has a poor record with infrastructure projects on this scale, as the never-ending saga of the bridge across the straits of Messina proves.
All of this will contribute to the already febrile political atmosphere. Italy is grappling with chronic institutional failure, which has given rise to various forms of populism. Government officials now have the headache of not just channelling the anger but also providing a remedy to it. Their cool relations with the Vatican can hardly help at a time when Italy needs unity and healing.
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