Pope Francis, Ahead of Ireland Visit, Breaks Silence After Horrific Sexual Abuse Reports

The Vatican expressed 'shame and sorrow' on Thursday over revelations that Roman Catholic priests in Pennsylvania sexually abused about 1,000 people over seven decades

Pope Francis looks on during an ecumenical meeting and a prayer for peace in Yerevan's Republic Square on June 25, 2016.
Alexander Nemenov, AFP

Pope Francis, facing simultaneous clergy sexual abuse crises in several countries, on Monday wrote an unprecedented letter to all the world's Catholics promising that no effort will be spared to prevent abuse and its cover up.

The heartfelt letter, addressed to "the people of God," also responded to a recent grand jury report in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania. He said that while most cases in the report "belong to the past," it was clear that abuse "was long ignored, kept quiet or silenced".

Irish abuse survivors await Pope's arrival with scepticism

Pope Francis travels to Ireland this week for the first papal visit in almost 40 years and since a series of clerical sex abuse scandals rocked the church's standing in a once staunchly Roman Catholic country.

There have been a series of reports into allegations of abuse by priests and members of religious orders. Here are some details of their findings:

* OCTOBER 2005:

- A 270-page report into the diocese of Ferns in County Wexford - the first official inquiry into the activities of abusive priests - detailed the Church's handling of 100 allegations against 21 priests dating back to the mid-1960s. Among the allegations were accusations of rape.

- The Ferns probe found that for 20 years the bishop in charge of the rural diocese did not expel priests against whom abuse allegations were made, but simply transferred them to a different post or diocese temporarily.

* MAY 2009:

- The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse issued a five-volume report which found that priests abused children between the 1930s and the 1970s in Catholic-run institutions. The harrowing report, which took nine years to complete, said orphanages and industrial schools in 20th century Ireland were places of fear, neglect and endemic sexual abuse.

The Commission, chaired by a High Court judge, blasted successive generations of priests, nuns and Christian Brothers - a Catholic religious order - for beating, starving and, in some cases raping, children.

The Commission interviewed 1,090 men and women who were housed in 216 institutions including children's homes, hospitals and schools. They told of children scavenging for food from waste bins. Youngsters were flogged, scalded and held under water, they said.

* NOVEMBER 2009:

- The Murphy report, another judge-led commission of inquiry that began in 2006, reported on widespread child abuse by priests in the Dublin archdiocese between 1975 and 2004 that the Church in Ireland had "obsessively" concealed.

All archbishops in charge at that time were aware of some complaints and the archdiocese was preoccupied with protecting the reputation of the Church over and above protecting children's welfare, the report said. It said the Church was "obsessively" concerned with secrecy and operated a policy of "don't ask, don't tell" about abuse.

The report, designed to show how the Church and state responded to charges of abusing children, said a representative sample of 46 priests against whom complaints were levelled made it "abundantly clear" that abuse was widespread.

* JULY 2011:

- The report into the handling of sex abuse claims in the diocese of Cloyne in County Cork showed that senior-ranking clergy were still trying to cover up abuse allegations almost until the present day, a decade after it introduced rules to protect minors, and that the Vatican was complicit in the cover-up.

Then Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny accused the Holy See of obstructing investigations into sexual abuse by priests and the Irish parliament passed a motion deploring its role in undermining child protection frameworks. The Vatican responded by recalling its ambassador to Ireland.

* FEBRUARY 2013

- An official report compiled by an inter-departmental government committee into Ireland's notorious Magdalene Laundries found that 10,000 women and girls, some as young as nine, were put through an uncompromising regime of unpaid work from the foundation of the Irish state in 1922 until 1996.

The report found that many of the women - some of whom were subjected to the harsh discipline of the institutions for simply becoming pregnant outside wedlock - were sent there by the Irish state. Kenny apologised on behalf of the state, calling it a "national shame" and promised compensation for survivors.

* JUNE 2014

- Following the discovery of an unmarked grave with the remains of hundreds of babies on the grounds of a former so-called "mother-and-baby home", the Irish government ordered an investigation into the treatment of children at the church homes for unmarried mothers, including accusations of forced adoptions and unusually high mortality rates among children housed there.

In an interim report three years later, investigators said significant quantities of human remains, ranging from 35-week-old foetuses to 3-year-olds, had been excavated from underground chambers at the site. Research by a local historian has shown that there were 796 recorded deaths of children at the County Galway home with no indication of their burial places.

Sexual abuse in the U.S.

The Vatican expressed "shame and sorrow" last Thursday over revelations that Roman Catholic priests in Pennsylvania sexually abused about 1,000 people over seven decades, vowing to hold abusers and those who protected them accountable.

In a long statement that broke the Vatican's silence over a damning U.S. grand jury report that has shaken the American Church, spokesman Greg Burke said the Holy See was taking the report "with great seriousness".

He stressed the "need to comply" with civil law, including mandatory reporting of abuse against minors and said Pope Francis understands how "these crimes can shake the faith and spirit of believers" and that the pontiff wanted to "root out this tragic horror".

The grand jury on Tuesday released the findings of the largest-ever investigation of sex abuse in the U.S. Catholic Church, finding that 301 priests in the state had sexually abused minors over the past 70 years. It contained graphic examples of children being groomed and sexually abused by priests.

"The abuses described in the report are criminal and morally reprehensible. Those acts were betrayals of trust that robbed survivors of their dignity and their faith," Burke said.

"The Church must learn hard lessons from its past, and there should be accountability for both abusers and those who permitted abuse to occur," he said.

His statement came hours after U.S. bishops called for a Vatican-led probe backed by lay investigators into allegations of sexual abuse by former Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who resigned last month.. The Vatican did not directly address their request.

Pope Francis accepted McCarrick's resignation in July after American church officials said allegations that he sexually abused a 16-year-old boy almost 50 years ago were credible and substantiated.

McCarrick was possibly the first cardinal to resign since French theologian Louis Billot, who according to the National Catholic Reporter, a US newspaper, left over a disagreement with Pope Pius XI in 1927.

"The overarching goal in all of this is stronger protections against predators in the Church and anyone who would conceal them, protections that will hold bishops to the highest standards of transparency and accountability," Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement.

The bishops said they would create a new way to report accusations of sexual abuse by clergy members and for claims to be investigated without interference from bishops overseeing priests accused of sex abuse. They said it would involve more church members who were not clergy but had expertise in law enforcement or psychology.

Nick Ingala, a spokesman for Voice of the Faithful, a group formed to promote parishioners' voices after the abuse scandal surfaced, said it was heartening that bishops wanted to set up an independent review process but he expressed skepticism that it would be successful.

"I don't know how they are going to work that out," Ingala said in a telephone interview. "I'm always hesitant to give 100 percent credence to any plan the bishops put forth based upon experiences in the past."

The Pennsylvania grand jury report was the latest revelation in a scandal that erupted onto the global stage in 2002, when the Boston Globe newspaper reported that for decades, priests had sexually assaulted minors while church leaders covered up their crimes.

Similar reports have emerged in Europe, Australia and Chile, prompting lawsuits and investigations, sending dioceses into bankruptcy and undercutting the moral authority of the leadership of the Catholic Church, which has some 1.2 billion members around the world.