Pope Francis waves as he arrives at the World Meeting of Families closing mass in Phoenix Park, Dublin, Ireland on Sunday. Picture: REUTERS/HANNAH MCKAY
Pope Francis waves as he arrives at the World Meeting of Families closing mass in Phoenix Park, Dublin, Ireland on Sunday. Picture: REUTERS/HANNAH MCKAY

Dublin/Knock, Ireland — Pope Francis on Sunday asked for forgiveness for the "scandal and betrayal" felt by victims of sexual exploitation by Catholic clergy as he toured Ireland, where years of abuse scandals have shattered the church’s former dominant role in society.

On the first papal visit to Ireland in four decades, Francis met eight victims of clerical, religious and institutional abuse on Saturday and said he would seek a greater commitment to eliminating this "scourge".

But he declined to comment on a letter by a former Vatican official alleging that he had ignored sexual abuse claims against US cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was forced to resign last month.

“I will not say a word about that. I think that the communique speaks for itself,” the pontiff said when questioned by journalists on his plane, flying back to Rome after his visit to Ireland.

“Read the communique attentively and make your own judgement,” he said. “

You have sufficient journalistic capacity to draw conclusions,” he went on. “When a little time has passed and you have the conclusions perhaps I will talk.”

But pressure on the pope over the issue increased on Sunday when a former Vatican envoy to Washington, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, wrote in a letter published in the National Catholic Register that he had told Francis of the allegations in 2013, but that he had responded by lifting sanctions imposed on McCarrick by his predecessor, Benedict.

“He (Pope Francis) knew from at least June 23 2013 that McCarrick was a serial predator,” wrote Vigano. “He knew that he was a corrupt man, he covered for him to the bitter end.” 

Francis told a crowd of tens of thousands at the Knock shrine in the west of Ireland on Sunday morning: "None of us can fail to be moved by the stories of young people who suffered abuse, were robbed of their innocence and left scarred.

"This open wound challenges us to be firm and decisive in the pursuit of truth and justice. I beg forgiveness for these sins and for the scandal and betrayal felt by so many others in God’s family."

Years of sexual abuse scandals have shattered the credibility of the church. In the past three years, Irish voters have approved abortion and gay marriage in referendums, defying the Vatican.

The declining influence of the Catholic Church has been demonstrated by crowds far smaller than those that met Pope John Paul II during the last papal visit in 1979, when three-quarters of Ireland’s population turned out. Still, up to 500,000 were expected to flock to watch Francis end his visit by saying mass at Dublin’s Phoenix Park.

"Given the way things are with so many young people’s faiths — a lot are not coming to mass because of the abuse — hopefully Pope Francis can draw them back again," said Celine Hill, who travelled from Northern Ireland to see the pope.

Francis wrote to all Catholics last week asking them to help root out "this culture of death" and vowing there would be no more cover-ups.

At Knock, Francis also condemned the treatment by Catholic religious orders of children who were "distanced from their mothers, abandoned and left with painful memories", an apparent reference to homes for unmarried mothers, which operated until the 1990s and at which many babies were separated from their mothers.

During the 20th century tens of thousands of unmarried pregnant women, including rape victims, were sent to give birth at so-called mother-and-baby homes. Many of the children were adopted.