When Pope Francis arrived in Ireland on 25 August 2018 for a historic two-day visit he did so against a backdrop of a Catholic Church in crisis over clerical sexual abuse in Ireland and around the world.

He was also confronted with the controversy surrounding mother-and-baby homes in Ireland.

Ahead of the visit, the Pope wrote a 2,000-word letter to Catholics in which he condemned the crime of sexual abuse by priests and subsequent cover-ups and demanded accountability in response to new revelations in the US of decades of misconduct by the church.

He also posted a video message in which he expressed hope that his visit would help grow unity and reconciliation among Christians on the island of Ireland.

At the end of a mass in the Phoenix Park Pope Francis asked for forgiveness.

Reading from a handwritten note in Spanish he said: "We ask forgiveness for the abuses in Ireland, abuses of power and conscience; sexual abuses on the part of qualified members of the church.

"In a special way, we ask for forgiveness for all the abuses committed in various types of institutions run by religious men and women and other members of the church ... we ask forgiveness for some members of the hierarchy who did not take care of these painful situations and kept silent - we ask forgiveness".

For the many thousands who came out to greet him in Dublin and Knock, Pope Francis represents a hope that the Catholic Church will firmly tackle the legacy of abuse.

The survivors of abuse have asked not for words, but for action.


Gathering of Families

Pope Francis is the first leader of the Catholic Church to hail from the Americas.

While Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998, Jorge Bergoglio travelled around the capital by bus and was described as a "simple pastor".

He regularly visited the slums around Buenos Aires and led the Jesuits during the years when a military junta held power in Argentina and has also opened up Vatican archives to victims of the regime.

Image - Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio was described as a 'simple pastor'

Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio was described as a 'simple pastor'

He was elected Pope in 2013 following the resignation of Pope Benedict and his lifestyle has been described as almost ascetic - choosing a Vatican guesthouse to live in over the grand Apostolic Palace.

As Pope he has attempted to reform the Vatican bureaucracy known as the Curia, tackle corruption in the Vatican bank, and address the issue of clerical sexual abuse.

The Pontiff's visit to Ireland was on foot of an invitation to attend the World Meeting of Families (WMOF) and as such this was not a formal state visit.

The WMOF, which is held every three years, was established by Pope John Paul II in 1994 to strengthen the bonds between families and bear witness to the "crucial importance" of marriage and the family.

Pope Francis confirmed in March that he would be attending the event, which gained huge significance worldwide following his letter condemning clerical abuse.

In his opening address to the WMOF, Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin said: "There are those who would look at the World Meeting as some sort of ideological gathering to celebrate a type of family which probably does not exist.

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"Whatever of the past, here in Dublin the World Meeting is something much more profound; it is to reflect the opening words of our reading: 'You are God's chosen race; he loves you'.

"The family is not a remote ideological notion but the place where compassion, kindness, gentleness, patience and forgiveness are learned, practised and spread."


'Give us the strength to work for justice'

The Papal delegation landed at Dublin Airport at 10.26am on 25 August where the Pontiff was met by Tánaiste Simon Coveney along with his wife and three young daughters.

Seven-year-old Jessica presented the Pope with a bouquet of flowers and welcomed him in Spanish; nine-year-old Beth greeted the Pope in Irish and five-year-old Annalise spoke to him in English.

Mr Coveney addressed the issues surrounding clerical sex abuse that has been hanging over the Papal visit.

He said: "I think it's been difficult for many people, for victims, for Catholics and many of the clergy. 

But I hope and expect that this weekend will be a very powerful moment.

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The Pope later met President Michael D Higgins at Áras an Uachtaráin where the President told the Pontiff of the "anger which had been conveyed to him at what was perceived to be the impunity enjoyed by those who had the responsibility of bringing such abuses for action by the appropriate authorities and have not done so".

In a statement after the meeting, the President's spokesman said: "The President welcomed the honest and forthright language that His Holiness used when addressing the issue in his recent Letter to the People of God".

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar called for zero-tolerance for those who abuse children and told the Pontiff that the past treatment of many women and young people by church and State had left a history of "sorrow and shame".

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He asked the Pope to use his office and influence to ensure that justice is served and urged him to listen to the victims.

"It is my hope that your visit marks the opening of a new chapter in the relationship between Ireland and the Catholic Church".

In his speech at Dublin Castle, the Pontiff spoke of his pain and shame at the failure of church authorities to tackle the scandal of clerical abuse in Ireland and said people had a right to be outraged at the response of senior church figures to the "repellent crimes" inflicted on young people.

"With regard to the most vulnerable, I cannot fail to acknowledge the grave scandal caused in Ireland by the abuse of young people by members of the church charged with responsibility for their protection and education," he said.

"The failure of ecclesiastical authorities - bishops, religious superiors, priests and others - adequately to address these repellent crimes has rightly given rise to outrage and remains a source of pain and shame for the Catholic community.

"I myself share those sentiments."

He later sat in silent prayer at the Candle of Innocence in St Mary's Pro-Cathedral - the candle has been permanently lit since 2011 to remember the survivors of clerical and institutional abuse.

He also spent around 90 minutes with survivors of clerical and institutional abuse in Ireland, where he expressed "pain and shame" over failures to tackle the scandals.

A letter from survivors released afterwards said: "Around 100,000 single mothers who were forcibly separated from their babies were regularly told it was a mortal sin to search for, or even contact, their own sons and daughters.


"As an act of healing, Pope Francis, we ask that you make it clear to the now elderly and dying community of natural mothers and adoptees that there is no sin in reunion and rather that it is a joyous event that should be encouraged and facilitated by the Catholic Church."

The letter added: "Five orders and congregations of Catholic nuns ran Ireland's notorious mother-and-baby homes where over 6,000 babies and children died as well as dozens of young mothers.

"These nuns have never taken responsibility for their wilful neglect. We ask you, Pope Francis, to publicly call on these nuns to acknowledge their actions and issue an unqualified apology to all the survivors of their institutions.

"We also request that you call on these nuns to immediately commit to paying the full cost of the current inquiry and any redress that may be awarded in the future."

Some of the survivors who attended the behind-closed-doors meeting said the Pontiff employed blunter language with them, apparently using the Spanish word "caca" - loosely translated as "filth from the toilet"- to describe those who covered up abuse.

During the mass at the Phoenix Park he asked for forgiveness for the church's treatment of survivors; where senior clergy kept quiet and where unmarried mothers were forcibly separated from their children and told that searching for them was a mortal sin.

The Pontiff ended his prayer by asking: "Give us the strength to work for justice. Amen."

His remarks were met with applause from the crowd.

Ahead of his return to Rome at the end of the visit, Pope Francis also raised the issue of clerical abuse with Irish bishops.

He said: "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."

He said the bishops had "resolutely moved forward" with steps to better safeguard children within the church.

"In these years, all of us have had our eyes opened to the gravity and extent of sexual abuse in various social settings," he added.

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.


Popemobile, selfies and mother-in-law jokes

During his address to the WMOF event in Croke Park on the first night of his visit, the Pope warned about the dangers of social media and the effect too much technology can have on family life.

"When you use social media too much you go into a sort of an orbit, when at the dinner table, instead of talking to each other within the family each of you uses his phone to connect with the outside world. Then you go into an orbit".

But notwithstanding his views on social media, the Pontiff – who tweets under the handle @Pontifex – delighted the crowd when he posed for a selfie with Dublin girl Alison Nevin.



Earlier that day, the Pope met couples, young and old, at St Mary's Pro-Cathedral in Dublin to hear their testimonies and answer questions - even managing to get a mother-in-law joke in.

"Getting married and sharing your lives is a beautiful thing," he told them.

He said older people had great wisdom, then joked: "Even the mothers-in-law, even they are wise."

The Pope also offered advice to couples who found themselves rowing.

"A marriage with no fights must be boring," he said.

"If even plates fly and crockery flies the secret is to make it up before the end of the day."

A mix of well-wishers, tourists and protesters watched as the Pope travelled through Dublin in the Popemobile, passing many of the city's well-known landmarks before arriving at the Capuchin Centre off Church Street.



Later, around 80,000 people packed into Croke Park for the highlight of the WMOF - the Festival of Families.

The selection of themes throughout the night reflected the priorities in the ministry of Pope Francis, including homelessness, migrants and refugees and care for our common home.

Nuns from the Sisters of Nazareth, Sister Francis Kelly and Sister Celine came to Ireland for the World Meeting of Families and said the concert was the perfect end to an excellent week.

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"We're having a fantastic time, we're enjoying every minute of it. The atmosphere is fantastic, we really enjoyed Nathan Carter, he was excellent"

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The Pope entered GAA headquarters on the back of a golf buggy and was driven around the venue waving to the crowds.

Image - Former Galway dual GAA player Alan Kerins is joined on stage by his wife Ciara and son Ruan

Former Galway dual GAA player Alan Kerins is joined on stage by his wife Ciara and son Ruan

The celebration of family life heard a number of tributes and testimonials about the importance of prioritising the role of families especially with young children with families from Ireland, Iraq, India and Africa telling the Pope their own personal stories.

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In his address, Pope Francis made the crowd repeat three things that he said every family needs to say to each other - "sorry, please and thank you" and to never to go to bed angry.

Before the day is over that's when you have to make peace, and you know why, do you know why it's necessary to make peace before day is over? Because if you don't ... it's very dangerous.

The second day of his visit included a trip to Knock - and the Pontiff touched down in the rain at the airport championed by Monsignor Eamon Horan.

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He shared a wave and a smile as he made a pilgrimage to the Marian Shrine with around 45,000 people braving the elements to see him.

He was driven through the crowds before entering the chapel at the site where in 1879, 15 people say they saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary.

After the brief visit he boarded an Aer Lingus plane back to Dublin, but not before autographing a GAA jersey.

Audrey Elliott, who works in the marketing team at the airport, handed the football jersey to the Pontiff and speaking afterwards, the Co Mayo fan said she hopes the "curse" of the team is now gone.

As the Pontiff returned to the capital, tens of thousands of people were making their way to the Phoenix Park for the Closing Mass of WMOF - among them up to 20,000 people from overseas.

Throngs of people walked through torrential rain to take up their places in the park throughout the morning, with many arriving well ahead of the 3pm mass.

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Music, video and drama entertained the crowds ahead of the Pope's arrival, where again the Popemobile was put through its paces as he moved his way to the altar.

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Well-wishers waved flags and reached out to touch him as he passed by and, led by a 3,000 strong choir, the crowds joined in the singing after the Pope finally made it to the altar below the huge white Papal Cross.

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The Pope, wearing green vestments specially designed for the occasion, began the mass by saying "Peace be with you".

In Quotes

Pope Francis in Knock: "I ask our Blessed Mother to intercede for the healing of the survivors and to confirm every member of our Christian family in the resolve never again to permit these situations to occur."

Leo Varadkar: "We welcome Pope Francis' call for firm and decisive action and for forgiveness. We now ask that from words flow actions. We thank Pope Francis for his visit, and ask for his prayers."

William Gorry, former resident of Mount Carmel Industrial School, Moate: "I want you to realise the amount of hurt, the damage, the distress out there that no one knows, because only a small percentage of survivors' voices are heard".

Paul Redmond who was born in a mother-and-baby home: "The Pope was genuinely shocked to hear about the 6,000 babies who died and the 3,000 banished babies ... he lifted his hands to his head in shock."

Abuse survivor Colm O'Gorman: "He [Pope Francis] could have talked to us all in a way that was blunt, that was clear, that was frank, that was human, that was accessible ... he refused to do so. And that's a huge shame. I think frankly it's rather disgraceful".


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Rita Coyne, from Dublin, on the Festival of Families concert in Croke Park: "It's brilliant, it's very different, it's very beautiful, so different from what I expected, I found it very joyful".

Saoirse McCarthy, 11, on meeting the Pope at Knock Airport: "I welcomed him to the west of Ireland and he said never forget to pray for him and then he gave me a set of rosary beads ... I thought he was really lovely and he's a wonderful man".

Brother Kevin Crowley: "You [Pope Francis] are a true brother of the people and a true brother of the poor".

Alan Ramsay from Dublin on the Pope's visit: "After the last visit, you had a lot of babies called John Paul. This is even better because you can call boys Francis, and girls Frances". 

Newlyweds Caroline and Ryan from Belfast who spoke to Pope Francis in the Pro-Cathedral: "He was very humble. His speech was awe-inspiring and he was very calm and modest and we absorbed every word that he said."

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'The amount of damage the church has caused is unbelievable'

Among the cheering crowds that greeted Pope Francis wherever he went, there were also many people who are deeply unhappy about the church's response to clerical and institutional abuse and a series of protests were held to coincide with the visit.

Hundreds of people took part in a vigil in Tuam, the site of a mother-and-baby home where the remains of almost 800 babies and children were discovered.

They walked from Tuam Town Hall to the site and tied baby shoes, toys and teddy bears to railings along the route.

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On his flight back to Rome, the Pope told reporters that on hearing about mother-and-baby homes in Ireland: "It touched my heart, that is why I wanted to repeat it during my speech."

He said: "I had never heard of these mothers, they call it the women's laundry, where an unwed woman is pregnant and goes into these hospitals, I don't know what they call them, schools, run by the nuns and then they gave children to the people in adoption."

Survivors who met the Pope have expressed shock that he knew nothing of Magdalene laundries and mother-and-baby homes.

Children's Minister Katherine Zappone gave him a memo about Tuam.

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She told him: "I am responsible for the Tuam Mother-and-Baby Home. Children's remains were found in a sewage system there. I hope the church will make reparation for its part in this shameful chapter. It is important".

Historian Catherine Corless said the vigil in Tuam sent a strong message to the Church that the people were not forgetting the Tuam babies, but she said that she was disappointed that Pope Francis did not refer specifically to Tuam while he was in the diocese during his visit.

In Dublin, survivors of clerical abuse gave emotional testimonies at a demonstration organised by the Say Nope to the Pope group.

Among them was William Gorry, who spent time at the Mount Carmel Industrial School in Moate, Co Westmeath, where he said he was physically and sexually abused.

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"The amount of damage the church has caused is unbelievable. My first holy communion, and then I was put into a home with the Sisters of Mercy, the clergy, the nuns, the lay people. It is just unbelievable what they did.

"I had a brother, five years of age, severely disabled, he was also abused," he told those gathered.

Several thousand people also assembled at the Garden of Remembrance for the Time for Truth rally, organised by clerical abuse survivor Colm O'Gorman, who told the crowd they were there to "stand for the truth".

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Lines of people filled Parnell Square East as the Pontiff led mass at the Phoenix Park, just a few kilometres away.

Many held banners calling for "Secular Justice For All", "Truth Justice Love" and "Church Without Abuse".

Organiser Colm O'Gorman said the Pope needs to tell the truth and acknowledge that the Vatican was involved in a deliberate and willful cover-up of abuse carried out by members of the church.

The rally walked together from the Garden of Remembrance to the last Magdalene Laundry on Sean McDermott Street.

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A moment of reflection was held outside the building which closed its doors as an institution in 1996.


It was perhaps inevitable that the issue of clerical sexual abuse and mother-and-baby homes would dominate the headlines before and during the Pope's visit.

"Pain", "shame", "repellant", "crime", "suffering", "forgiveness" – these were some of the words used by the Pope in his comments on abuse – and he was even blunter when he described those who would cover up abuse as "caca".

But as he travelled back to Rome from what was overall a successful visit to Ireland, he was faced with more controversy.

A former top Vatican official claimed that the Pontiff had covered up sexual abuse.

Pope Francis dismissed the statement from his former Papal Nuncio to the US, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, telling reporters that he "will not say a single world on this".

He is accused of being aware of serious abuse allegations against Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, five years before the cardinal's resignation in June.

The Catholic Primate of All Ireland said Pope Francis had taken a lead in terms of abuse scandals, but the proof would be whether or not there was accountability and justice and decisive action from the church.

While some survivors of abuse were critical of the Pope's statements on clerical abuse and mother-and-baby homes, Pope Francis himself said his visit to Ireland brought him great joy and for the tens of thousands of people who came out to see him on the streets of Dublin and in Knock, and who gathered in Croke Park and the Phoenix Park, the visit was a source of joy and an affirmation of their faith.


Images: Getty, EPA, PA.