CORK, Ireland — On September 30, 1979, Pope John Paul II declared: “Young people of Ireland, I love you.”
It was the most memorable quote from an historic, three-day visit during which an estimated 2.7 million people — almost 80 percent of the population — came out to greet the pontiff.
But for Michael O’Brien, who stood in line all night in Limerick to catch a glimpse, the words “sent a shiver” down his spine. O’Brien was one of thousands of people who held a secret about clerical and institutional abuse by members of the Church — a secret they could not share in Ireland in 1979.
“Nobody went public,” O’Brien, now 85, told VICE News. “Imagine if just before that pope came, I said, ‘You can't come because I was raped in institutions’ — I would have been locked up.”
Thirty-nine years later, Pope Francis is preparing to visit Ireland for the first time as pontiff, the head of a church scarred by revelations detailing decades of abuse by Catholic priests and religious orders against the young — as well as a coordinated effort by the church to hide those crimes.
What should have been an celebratory visit to a place once considered the most Catholic country in the world will instead be a visceral reminder of the church’s failure to address clerical abuse, as Francis comes face-to-face with the people whose lives have been destroyed.
The pope confirmed this week he will meet with some of the survivors in Ireland, but campaigners like O’Brien and rights groups have dismissed the effort as a “PR exercise.”
“Survivors are tired of meaningless apologies and expressions of solidarity that do not involve a clear call to action,” Maeve Lewis, executive director of Ireland charity One in Four, said this week.
While some have hailed the pope’s survivor meetings as a significant moment, O’Brien is critical of the lack of transparency.
"We do not know who he is meeting? I don't want to meet the pope in a secret place! Hold it in public. Who cares? Everybody knows that Michael O'Brien has been abused in an institution,” he said.
Two decades of revelations about clerical abuse and cover-ups have broken the church’s iron grip on the people and institutions of Ireland.
“Survivors are tired of meaningless apologies and expressions of solidarity that do not involve a clear call to action.”
During the 1990s the country decriminalized homosexuality and narrowly voted to legalize divorce. Three years ago, a new Ireland emerged when it became the first country to legalize gay marriage via a popular vote. This year more than 65 percent of the people voted to legalize abortion, despite the church’s strong opposition.
“If people are more informed about Ireland in recent years, they will be well aware that the sway and the power of the Church have been damaged beyond repair and certainly they are not in a position to influence how people might vote," Diarmuid Ferriter, a well-known Irish historian, told VICE News.
But it’s not just the abuse scandals in Ireland that Francis will have to address after he lands in Dublin Saturday.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court last week released a grand jury report that concluded the church covered up the abuse of at least 1,000 children by more than 300 priests in the state.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl was due in Dublin this week to give a keynote address on the "welfare of the family” ahead of the papal visit but pulled out after the report accused him of covering up the allegations.
“Statements from Vatican or pope should stop telling us how terrible abuse is and how all must be held accountable. Tell us instead what you are doing to hold them accountable.”
In the wake of that scandal, the pope unexpectedly published a letter apologizing for the church’s wrongdoing. But survivors in Ireland were not impressed, criticizing the Vatican for failing to outline any concrete steps to bring those responsible for the abuse and the cover-up to justice.
“Statements from Vatican or pope should stop telling us how terrible abuse is and how all must be held accountable,” Marie Collins, a campaigner and abuse survivor, said. “Tell us instead what you are doing to hold them accountable.”
Campaigner Colm O’Gorman, who was raped by a priest in Wexford a week after the papal visit in 1979, said the pope “once again fails to name who is responsible for the cover-up.”
O’Gorman described the pope’s decision to meet with abuse survivors in Dublin as a “box-ticking” exercise.
"We've been listening to apologies now for nearly a quarter of a century, but what struck me in the last few days is the cynicism that exists about the pope's statement, because we have heard it all before,” Ferriter said.
Francis is expected to be greeted by large crowds as he travels through Dublin, with up to 500,000 people likely to gather in Phoenix Park Saturday to hear the pope celebrate mass.
But Ireland is no longer the country it was in 1979, and a number of protests have been organized, including a “Say Nope to the Pope” event, with several thousand planning to attend. Many people have also obtained tickets to the Phoenix Park mass, but won’t attend as a visual protest against the abuse scandal.
The planned protests have been criticized by Ireland’s Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who called the actions “wrong, petty, and mean-spirited.” Organizers hit back, calling Varadkar’s comments “not an appropriate description for a peaceful, silent and respectful protest against one of the world's largest corrupt organizations that meddle in global paedophilia and systematic protection of abusers.”
O’Brien, a former politician and one of Ireland’s oldest survivors of clerical sexual abuse, noted how the church has completely ignored the abuse that took place in institutions run by Catholic priests, brothers and nuns. Institutions like St. Joseph’s Industrial School in Clonmel, which was run by the Rosminian order and where O’Brien was abused by two priests for six years from the age of 8.
Years later, and frustrated at the lack of action, O’Brien took things into his own hands, tracking down one of the priests to an institution in Cork.
“My intention was to kill the priest, because no one was doing anything about it,” O’Brien said. “I saw [him] sitting in a chair, flopped over, dribbling down on his clothes, full of cigarette ash. He was decrepit."
In the end O’Brien walked away because the priest had “one foot in the grave.” Two weeks later, he heard the priest had died.
“My intention was to kill the priest, because no one was doing anything about it.”
In the end, what O’Brien and the thousands of Irish survivors want to know is that those who abused them will be punished for their crimes.
“What we need is peace. We need to sleep every night without waking up and seeing one of them bastards at the end of the bed, calling you.”
Cover image: Pope Francis attends the weekly general audience in Paul VI hall on August 22, 2018 at The Vatican. (VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)