DUBLIN — Pope Francis said Saturday that church failures to address sexual crimes have “rightly given rise to outrage,” an acknowledgment of the traumas that are challenging his papacy and have radically diminished the authority of the Catholic Church here.
Beginning one of the most fraught trips in his five years as pope, Francis described the “repellent crimes” and the church’s inability to deal with them as “a source of pain and shame for the Catholic community” — remarks some Irish criticized as familiar and lacking any mention of concrete steps for reform.
“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 told a room filled with members of the Irish government, other lawmakers and diplomats.
Francis later compared corruption and the coverup of abuse to human excrement, using the word “caca,” according to three of the eight survivors who took part in a private meeting with him.
The 36-hour trip represents the pope’s most direct encounter yet with the ramifications of abuse scandals, as well as a test of whether he can rebuild the church’s standing in a country where Catholicism was once the social and religious bedrock. It will also provide clues about how Francis, who has sometimes been criticized for his handling of the crisis, will guide a church facing a new wave of damaging cases across the world.
Some Irish Catholics have said they want the pope to ask forgiveness for the Vatican’s role in facilitating the coverup of sexual crimes — something he did not do Saturday. Others say he will be hard-pressed to regain the trust eroded by several government-backed inquiries into abuses in Irish dioceses and other church-run institutions.
Francis is visiting Ireland for the World Meeting of Families, and on Sunday he will celebrate an afternoon Mass and address what is expected to be a large crowd in Dublin’s Phoenix Park.
But the first papal trip to Ireland in 39 years is also a marker of how secularization and feelings of betrayal have accelerated a move away from the church. In 1979, Pope John Paul II was greeted here over several days by an estimated 2.7 million people. Francis, as he toured Dublin in his popemobile Saturday, drew crowds of people cheering and waving yellow and white Vatican City flags. But the city did not come to a standstill, and many Dubliners continued with their routines, meeting in pubs, exercising, doing laundry, watching bits and pieces of the pope’s visit on television.
At Croke Park Stadium on Saturday evening, where Francis offered guidance on family life at an event dubbed the Festival of Families, papal merchandise was selling at discount prices. In a neighborhood where Francis met with homeless families, Esther Hyland, 78, said she was jeered by a passerby as she placed yellow-and-white bunting in front of her home.
“I’m angry about the coverup, too,” she said. “But it’s my faith. He’s my leader.”
Others preferred to keep their distance, indicative of a country where atheism is on the rise, some churches are being decommissioned, and priests are being imported from other countries.
“It’s hard to make up for the terrible things that happened here,” said Matthew Hennessy, 26, who said he believes in God but not “in the Catholic Church the way it is now.”
Many Irish say they appreciate Francis’s personal style, as well as his emphasis on environmental protection and social justice, but they say he has not delivered the necessary transparency or changes in church law to help the Vatican deal with abuse. A tribunal that Francis approved in 2015, designed for bishops accused of coverup or negligence, was thwarted by internal Vatican opposition. A commission he created to advise him on sexual abuse has delivered few significant breakthroughs, and a high-profile Irish abuse survivor, Marie Collins, resigned from the group last year in protest.
Collins was among the eight survivors who met with Francis privately for 90 minutes Saturday — a follow-through on the pope’s pledge to sit down with abuse victims at some point during his Ireland trip. The Vatican did not release details about the meeting, but three of the victims in attendance said Francis used the word “caca” when talking about corruption and coverup within the church.
“It was his way of saying ‘the lowest of the worst.’ He was speaking from the heart,” said Patrick McCafferty, a priest in Belfast who participated in the meeting and was abused by a priest as a seminarian. “So yes, he used that term. It was a very blunt term about those who have caused this catastrophe.”
Earlier Saturday, in a speech at Dublin Castle with the pope looking on, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who is gay, spoke about Ireland’s social inclusiveness, where “families come in many different, wonderful forms, including those headed by a grandparent, lone parent or same-sex parents, or parents who are divorced.”
Varadkar said it was time for a “new relationship between church and state in Ireland” and that abuse by priests and in church-run institutions were “stains on our state, our society and also the church.”
“There can only be zero tolerance for those who abuse children or facilitate that abuse,” Varadkar said. “We must now ensure that from words flow actions.”
In his own remarks, the Argentine-born pontiff said he was committed to eliminating the “scourge” in the church “at any cost.” But he also said that steps taken by his immediate predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, continue “to serve as an incentive” in ending abuse. In 2010, Benedict wrote a letter to Irish Catholics in which he said he was “truly sorry” for the “sinful and criminal” acts that happened in Ireland. The letter, though, was widely criticized in Ireland because it did not mention the Vatican’s culpability.
Mark Vincent Healy, an Irish victim of clerical abuse, said Francis’s speech was “empty — really empty.”
“I was with a group of survivors, and they were all upset with the statements as being ineffectual,” he said.
On Monday, in a letter addressed to Catholics around the world, Francis had noted the “heart-wrenching pain” of victims following a Pennsylvania grand jury report that detailed decades of sexual misconduct by priests and repeated failures by bishops to hold priests accountable. One of the prelates whose conduct was scrutinized in the report is Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who led the diocese in Pittsburgh for 18 years before coming to Washington.
Wuerl has defended his record but withdrew from a speaking role during the pope’s visit to Dublin. Another U.S. cardinal, Sean O’Malley, also backed out as he handles a probe into alleged sexual misconduct at a seminary.
Francis was making his first trip to Ireland since 1980, when he was known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio and stayed for a time in a Dublin suburb to learn English. But the country has undergone a social transformation since then, approving same-sex marriage and ending an abortion ban with referendums. In Francis’s first meeting of the day, Ireland’s president, Michael Higgins, spoke about “how acts of exclusion, including those based on gender and sexual orientation, had caused, and were still causing, great suffering,” according to a readout of the meeting provided by his office.
In his Saturday evening speech on family matters, Francis did not address those issues, nor did he mention abuse. Instead, he gave accessible advice for families and couples, talking about the importance of limiting social media and of quickly making up after a fight.
Brian D’Arcy, a priest and broadcaster, said there were competing expectations for Francis’s Ireland trip.
“The pope came here for the World Meeting of Families,” D’Arcy said, “but the Irish people thought he was coming here to apologize for abuse, and the two never met.”