What will the pope have to say now that Ireland’s dirty secrets are out? | Susan McKay

Survivors of mass abuse are unlikely to give him their blessing when he’s in Ireland this weekend

A strange thing happened this summer after the Irish people voted to repeal the eighth amendment to our constitution, knowing that this would pave the way for legislation allowing women to have abortions in this country. To describe it, you need to know about a slogan feminists used to chant at marches when we were campaigning for reproductive rights. “Get your rosaries off our ovaries,” we’d yell, imagining both the prayers and the chains of beads over which they are intoned.

The results of the referendum, in which two out of every three voters said yes, elated and overjoyed us. But there was a physical sensation, too. It took me a while and some discussion with friends to identify it – for they felt it as well. A lightness. It could, we realised, be precisely described. It was the absence of rosaries on our ovaries. We had been shackled. We’d broken free.

The pope is in Ireland this weekend. Pope Francis. He is the second pope to visit. John Paul II came in 1979. I was a student in Dublin then and recall a plan conceived among friends in a smoky bar to inflate large numbers of condoms and release them over Phoenix Park during the papal mass. But we didn’t get it together. If condoms were acquired, and it wasn’t that easy then, they were put to other uses. Contraception was illegal, but that year a law was passed allowing them to be made available for “bona fide family planning purposes”. The then taoiseach declared it “an Irish solution to an Irish problem”. As far as my kind of people were concerned, the Irish problem was that it was still in the stranglehold of the Catholic church.

Campaigners wait for the official result of the Irish abortion referendum in May
Campaigners wait for the official result of the Irish abortion referendum in May. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images

In the part of Derry in which I grew up, loyalists would daub the walls with “Fuck the Pope” and “No Pope Here”. The Reverend Ian Paisley ranted about popery. He called the pope “old Red Socks” and ladies tittered. I was on the run from Protestant sectarianism and the Troubles when I moved across the border. I soon realised that the Catholic church in the republic was a lethally oppressive force, even though it had officially lost its “special position” in the constitution in 1973. In 1979, I got involved as a volunteer in the newly opened Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. It was denounced by religious zealots as “a front for abortion”. They boasted they’d blocked its meagre funding.

When the pope came to Ireland that year, a million and a quarter people flocked to see him. Almost 90% of the population were mass-going Catholics. Bishops were powerful and the phrase “a belt of the crozier” was still in use. The pope begged us not to introduce divorce. I used to go to the Women’s Aid refuge in Dublin and play with the children. I remember their desolately revealing paintings. It was a drafty Georgian house crammed to the attics with women and children who’d fled from violent men. In the eyes of the church, these women had made their beds and it was now their duty to lie in them.

“Young people of Ireland, I love you,” the pope beamed.

He did not talk about child abuse, because that was the church’s great big dirty open secret. He did not talk about Magdalene laundries. Or mother-and-baby homes or septic tanks full of the bodies of dead infants. Or industrial schools in which children were subjected to sadistic cruelty that was, for many, impossible to survive. Or of the banished people over the generations. The “disordered” gays, the unmarried pregnant women and girls. The victims of all of this violence were shamed and silenced.

This time, it is going to be so, so different. On Friday night, Dublin’s general post office, site of the 1916 rebellion against British rule in Ireland, was illuminated with a banner for a Stand for Truth counterdemonstration and the faces of brave, defiant survivors of clerical child abuse who became champions for change. The event will take place in the Garden of Remembrance, which is dedicated to those who died for Ireland.

Several members of the global hierarchy were forced to withdraw from their planned participation in the World Meeting of Families, to which the papal visit was meant to add the finishing touch, because Irish campaigners protested that they had presided over industrial-scale abuse and were therefore, well, kind of unsuitable. Gay families having been excluded, LGBT choirs sang sweetly outside the gates: “We are family...”

Irish people voted to legalise same-sex marriage in 2015. We voted for divorce in 1996. There are machines vending condoms in a range of flavours and styles in pubs up and down the country. The bishops were hoping for a revival of religious faith and obedience after a catastrophic series of democratic defeats. It blew up in their faces.

In 1992, on US television, Sinéad O’Connor sang Bob Marley’s War, changing the words to include child rape, and tore up a photograph of the pope. The revelations flooded out during that decade. As a reporter, I asked a survivor of clerical violence what he thought of the public apology that had just been made by the religious order responsible. “They are only covering their arses,” he said. “Which is more than they allowed us to do.” Today, there are more Irish priests in an episode of Father Ted than in most of the dioceses. Only about 35% of Catholics go to mass. Former president Mary McAleese has become a powerful critic of the Vatican, recently designating it “the empire of misogyny”. Among the many jokes currently doing the rounds, there is an image of a road sign such as you see outside schools. It shows a parent holding a small child by the hand. Caution, it says, the pope is coming.

Susan McKay is author of Bear in Mind These Dead, on the legacy of the Troubles

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Susan McKay

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