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Pope Francis visits Ireland amid priest abuse firestorm

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By Una Mullally, CNN

Pope Francis arrives Saturday in Ireland on the first papal visit to the majority Roman Catholic nation in almost 40 years, where he will be greeted by fervent crowds and angry protests.
His two-day visit comes as the Church is once again embroiled in scandal over clerical abuse, fueled by the release this month of a damning Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing decades of sexual abuse and coverups.

Tens of thousands of people are expected to flock to Dublin's Croke Park stadium on Saturday, when Francis will deliver an address as part of the Festival of Families, a concert-type event.
Organizers say hundreds of thousands more will attend a Mass celebrated by the Pope at the city's Phoenix Park on Sunday afternoon, with all 500,000 tickets for the free event booked out.

[post_ads]However, the papal visit will also be marked by unprecedented protests over the Catholic Church's handling of the clerical abuse scandal. One, dubbed "Stand for Truth," will take place at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin's Parnell Square at the same time as the Mass is celebrated.

Some protesters also say they have booked tickets to the event in Phoenix Park but will deliberately not use them as a form of silent protest against the Catholic Church and its actions.

Organizers of the "Say Nope to the Pope" protest said on Facebook they hoped to show solidarity to abuse victims and "show the Church they don't have the control they used to."

Pope Francis-themed T-shirts and candles are seen on sale before the opening ceremony of the World Meeting of Families in Dublin.

The Pope's trip coincides with the World Meeting of Families, a gathering of the Catholic Church held every three years that was thrown into chaos last week by the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report.

Amid rising international anger over the report's revelations, the Vatican confirmed this week that the Pope would meet privately with victims of clerical sexual abuse in Ireland during his visit to the country. It has not said where or when that meeting will take place.

It is also "very possible" that the Pope will publicly address the topic of abuse during his visit, the Vatican's press office director, Greg Burke, told reporters.

Burke added that the pontiff would pray at St. Mary's Pro Cathedral in Dublin on Saturday, where a candle has burned for years in remembrance of the country's victims of sexual abuse.

While in Ireland, the pontiff will also call on Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and President Michael Higgins, meet with representatives of the government and civil society at Dublin Castle and pay a private visit to a day center for homeless families run by Capuchin friars.

On Sunday morning, he will make a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Knock in County Mayo, more than 100 miles west of Dublin, where he will lead prayers for families around the world. All 45,000 tickets for this event are also booked out.

The last papal visit to Ireland was by Pope John Paul II in September 1979. More than a million people gathered for the papal Mass in Phoenix Park on that occasion, according to the Irish Times, representing about a third of the country's population at the time.
'We abandoned them'
On Monday, Francis acknowledged "with shame and repentance" the Catholic Church's failure to act over clerical abuse. In an unusually blunt letter, he wrote: "We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them."

The letter directly referred to the Pennsylvania report, which "detailed the experiences of at least 1,000 survivors, victims of sexual abuse, the abuse of power and of conscience at the hands of priests over a period of approximately 70 years," the Pope wrote.

Meanwhile, memories of Ireland's own abuse scandal are still vivid. And survivors have been critical of Francis' response so far.
Colm O'Gorman, an abuse survivor who is now executive director of Amnesty International Ireland, is behind the Stand for Truth protest.

He told CNN that the Vatican's announcement this week had created a "soap opera" in Ireland, with members of the media repeatedly calling survivors to ask whether they had been granted an audience with the pontiff.

Clerical abuse survivor Marie Collins, who resigned last year from a special Vatican commission created by Pope Francis to tackle child abuse, saying that senior clerics in the Church refused to implement their suggested safety policies, said she wanted to see action, not words.
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"What I would like to see when the Pope comes to Ireland, is to come out, not make these sort of 'we're sorry,' type of statements, but to tell us what is he going to do -- and do it," Collins, who was assaulted by a priest when she was 13, told CNN.

"And it must be something concrete."

In 2009, the Dublin Archdiocese Commission of Investigation released a 720-page report that said that it had "no doubt that clerical child sexual abuse was covered up" from January 1975 to May 2004, the time covered by the report. The commission had been set up in 2006 to look into allegations of child sexual abuse made against clergy in the Irish capital.


The report named 11 priests who had pleaded guilty to or were convicted of sexual assaults on children. Of the other 35, it gave pseudonyms to 33 of them and redacted the names of two.

CNN's Eliza Mackintosh contributed to this report.

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