Dear Pope Francis: ‘A year after John Paul II came, I was raped by a priest’
We invite a range of people to write the Pope an open letter in advance of his Irish visit
Pope Francis. File photograph: Tony Gentile/Reuters
Executive director, Amnesty International Ireland
I won’t lie. It has been a tough few months. I hadn’t imagined that your visit to Ireland would cause me any upset, but to my surprise it has.
It started when the media here began to recall the iconic moments of John Paul II’s visit back in 1979. I was 13 years old then and, like most children of my generation, heavily involved in the church. I had been an altar server; I sang at Mass every Sunday.
I went to a Christian Brothers School and the youth group I attended every week was a Catholic group that met in a convent. The church was a massive influence in my life back then, and central to every part of it.
I didn’t get to see Pope John Paul II when he was here. My older sister and brother did, and I remember envying them as I watched the visit unfold on TV. The ecstatic crowds that lined the streets everywhere the Pope went, him beaming from his Popemobile and blessing the crowds as he wove his way though them, and above all that moment in Galway when he looked out across 300,000 young people and proclaimed in his accented, booming voice, “Young people of Ireland, I love you!”
My heart nearly burst when I heard him say that. It was a time when people didn’t often tell us that we were loved, not in that way, and I believed him. I believed every word he said.
It’s different now, though. Now when I hear that same voice say those same words I don’t feel that joy. Instead I feel terribly sad. Sad for that 13-year-old me, heartbroken and sick for him.
You see, just over a year after that, I was raped for the first time by a priest. A priest who used my blind faith in the goodness of your institution to get into my home, take me away and repeatedly assault me.
That priest had been ordained just four months before the visit, and your church knew then that he was a child abuser. He had sexually assaulted a group of boy scouts while a seminarian. The scouting association had barred him for life as a result, but your church made him a priest and then sent him off and let him abuse for years with impunity.
He made it along to the papal visit. He was in the Phoenix Park for the Mass, at the Papal Cross beneath which you will celebrate Mass when you arrive here soon. After he was ordained he was sent to a parish in Belfast, where he immediately began to cause havoc. He worked his way around the ban from the boy scouts by founding a troop of his own. I was told he had some of them with him at that Mass in 1979. I wonder if those boys were abused during that trip?
The impact of what he did to me nearly killed me. I won’t go into the detail now, but it led to me fleeing my home when it finally ended almost three years later because I was so broken that I was finding it difficult to stay alive. If I hadn’t run, I don’t think I would have survived. I spent six months on the street, and was estranged from my family for nearly four years as a result of it all.
That, perhaps, is worth thinking of in the context of your trip here for the World Meeting of Families: those of us who were abused by the church have families, and they suffered alongside us. Many are still suffering.
Many will watch your visit and remember 1979, before all of this was revealed and before they came to know about and understand the trauma their children suffered. Some will watch it and be reminded of the loss of their children because some of us haven’t survived, some of us couldn’t cope. Some of us died because we saw no way out of the agony of living with what was done to us.
Those families matter too. They may not be there waving flags as you drive by, but shouldn’t you reach out to them at long last and do them the respect of finally telling the truth?
My own family were a big part of me finding the strength to come forward and report the abuse in 1995. What was done to me was tough for them to bear. My Dad in particular was shattered by it. He was a massive support to me, and his love and concern for me was just incredible back then.
Dad died later that same year, but he has always been part of this journey for me. He taught me that the truth matters, that integrity and the courage to stand for what I believe in matters. So, 23 years later, I still stand for truth. I think it’s time that you did the same.
Some people will tell you that you need to do this to save the church from further collapse. That may be true, but I hope you will finally do so not to save the institution, but because it is quite simply the right thing to do. Tell the truth. Admit the cover-up. Please.
Freelance journalist, human rights activist and practising Catholic
Dear Pope Francis,
Thank you for coming to Ireland!
As a young Catholic transitioning from college to career, I can hand-on-heart say that my faith is the best part of my life. It gives me an order and a purpose; it challenges me to be more kind, to love better, to forgive more frequently, and to look beyond myself and my own needs. It gives me reason and purpose and makes sense of the here and now.
Faith isn’t something you can explain in a line; it’s something you have to discover for yourself by asking questions, searching for truth, and allowing yourself to be open.
I have great respect for you, and my hope is that, with your visit, as many people as possible will get to share in the experience of the Catholic faith that we know and love.
It can’t be easy leading the church today. Please know that every time you receive a negative comment or unjustified criticism, I and many others stand with you. I truly love my faith and I can’t help but but light up when I talk about it and share it with others.
I come out of daily Mass feeling refreshed, happier, and ready to start my day with a better mindset. Thank you for helping facilitate that through the family of the church.
One thing I look forward to about the World Meeting of Families is celebrating our global Catholic community. There’s nothing like meeting other young Catholics from all corners of the world to inspire and invigorate our faith. I remember attending World Youth Day in Madrid in 2011 where we met large groups of young pilgrims, exchanged cultures, and in some cases have kept in contact since.
I hope this World Meeting of Families will see the start of many friendships and will help Catholic families revitalise their faith both in Ireland and abroad.
I hope you enjoy your time in Ireland and we look forward to welcoming you soon!
Fr Peter McVerry
Jesuit priest and homelessness campaigner
Dear Pope Francis,
As you are no doubt aware, the Catholic Church in Ireland is in very poor health, perhaps even terminally ill.
When Jesus was around, thousands of ordinary people followed him, listening to every word he said. Clearly what he was saying was relevant to them. Today the message of the church is supposed to be the continuation of the message of Jesus, but instead of thousands of people coming to the church to listen to what it says, thousands of people are walking away, describing the church’s message as irrelevant to their lives. Has the message changed?
Jesus talked about a God of compassion, a God who cared about the poverty, suffering and exclusion of many of those who came to listen to him, and he told them that God was on their side. Today, however, many, particularly young people, find the church a cold place, legalistic, judgmental and condemning.
You too talk about a God of compassion, a God of mercy, and you reveal by your actions a God who is on the side of the poor, the homeless, migrants, prisoners. Your writings talk about a God who challenges the global structures which maintain the suffering of so many in our world, while enriching the few.
That is why so many today, even unbelievers, listen to what you have to say. Unless the church in Ireland follows the path you walk, and talk, and puts social justice at the centre of its mission and ministry, then it will continue to see its followers walking away.
Unless the church puts the poor, the homeless, Travellers, prisoners, victims of drug misuse and other marginalised groups at the centre of its preaching and practice, it will have no future.
Compassion always has a political dimension. Jesus was not crucified because he told people to love one another. No, he was crucified because real love challenges vested interests. Unless the church takes sides, in this, the fifth-wealthiest country in the world, the fastest-growing economy in the EU, home to 50,000 millionaires, where more and more people and families are forced to live on the street, it will continue to be irrelevant.
Unless the church in Ireland takes the side of those who struggle to pay the mortgage or rent, who live in fear of eviction or house repossession, while banks, vulture funds and some very greedy landlords maximise their profits, it will continue to be irrelevant. If the church takes sides, it will be persecuted, as Jesus was.
The tragedy is that the message of Jesus, given to the church to proclaim, has so much to offer a divided and suffering world. The success of your visit will depend on the challenge which you present to the Irish church to move from maintenance mode to mission to the marginalised.
Your brother in Christ,
Fr Peter McVerry SJ
Roman Catholic, regular church goer and member of church choir
Dear Pope Francis,
Thank you for coming to Ireland, a very different Ireland to that visited by your predecessor Pope John Paul II .
Our Catholic faith is challenged on all sides. We need reassurance and hope and most of all we need to feel we are being listened to.
You seem like a man who listens, has compassion and is open to new ideas. Please let us see that during your visit.
God bless you. Mary Fleming
Write your letter to Pope Francis
Journalist and author
When you took the name of Francis of Assisi you were obviously sending a signal that your papacy would try to match the humility and kindness of that extraordinary man. You’ve lived up to the hopes that this engendered.
For many of those who will feel a profound joy at seeing you in Ireland, the fact that you are pope is enough in itself. Your office carries with it, for them, a sense of the sacred.
But for many here, as around the world, there is also a heartfelt welcome for Francis the man. You have conducted yourself humbly, kindly and with the grace of knowing that you are a sinner like the rest of us. That would have mattered greatly at any time, but it matters all the more in a world where leadership is increasingly reduced to a coarse vulgarity of both manner and message.
But I also imagine when you chose the name that you may have been sending another message, a kind of distress signal. You know much better than most of us that Francis was both troubled and troublesome. Early in his spiritual pilgrimage, he heard the icon of the crucified Christ in the church at San Damiano speak to him. It said: “Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.”
When you’re here, it might not look like you’re in a house that is going to ruin. The brightest banners will be hung out to greet you. You will feel great waves of love radiating towards you. For the remaining orthodox faithful, your coming is a balm in a time of great upset, a comforting moment in a year when their faith has definitively lost its place as the dominant Irish ethic.
For the ex-faithful, out of love with the institution you embody but still drawn to its images and meanings, your gentle presence is reassuring. Even for most non-believers, there is still a sense of occasion. We like events here, and you are an event. And papal yellow is this summer’s colour after all.
But I’m sure you won’t be fooled by this. Beneath it, there is a stark fact – the triumphant, dominant church your predecessor John Paul II found here in 1979 is not just ruined. It is irreparable. It destroyed itself with patriarchal authoritarianism, the cynical enabling of child abusers and the worldliness that came from entangling itself in State power. That Irish church isn’t coming back.
There will be those who will whisper in your ear while you are here that it can be rebuilt with stern discipline and an unbending repetition of the old orthodoxies. You can believe them if you choose, but they’re wrong.
Perhaps this doesn’t matter much to you. Maybe, now that Ireland no longer has any value as a model of the modern Catholic state, it is no more than a distant disappointment from which you prefer to avert your gaze. Maybe its shrinking core of orthodoxy is of little account on the global scale of your concerns. And if so, that’s fair enough.
But perhaps it troubles you that something that was so recently so solid has melted so fast. If it can happen here, can it not happen anywhere?
If you are so troubled, you have to be, like the saint whose name you took, troublesome. Francis took the risk of being thought heretical in order to return to a very basic Christianity. It is hard to imagine that he would have counted as basic Christianity the maintenance of male power over women, obsessions with “the contraceptive mentality”, the casual abuse of LGBTQ people or the protection of church institutions above all else. I get the impression that you don’t either.
If you were to say as much in Ireland, you might open up the road beyond ruin.
The fictional star of the novel and Facebook group Oh My God What A Complete Aisling
Dear Pope Francis,
Firstly, I’d like to take this opportunity to explain the row I had with my best friend Majella over confirmation names in sixth class. We both wanted Emma and were fit to kill each other over it. It was all for nothing because Miss Moloney insisted there was no Saint Emma so I took the classic Brigid to keep the peace, and Maj went for the slightly more obscure Lidwina, the patron saint of ice skaters.
We were friends again by the time the Confirmation Mass came around but I have to admit here and now that I thought it would never end. Majella got a terrible Mass Laugh, and there’s nothing more contagious than a Mass Laugh. In the end both of us were sitting there staring straight ahead, shaking silently, with tears streaming down our faces. I had to dig my nails into my palm and think about poor Granny Reilly’s coffin being lowered into the grave to try and get back to a state of equilibrium. The bishop knew well what was happening – I’m surprised he let the Holy Spirit near us.
I hope you can forgive us. We were only 12 and up to high doh with all the carry-on.
While I’m confessing things, I may as well tell you I’ve stopped going to Mass. Mammy has too, even though the call for steady-footed eucharistic ministers for your big do in the Phoenix Park nearly had her back practising her body-of-Christs.
Between yourself and myself the good is gone out of Mass. Too much has gone on and too many people have been hurt. I’ll go for a wedding, of course – I’d rather throw myself into the fiery pit of hell than ruin a bride’s Special Day, but, apart from that and the odd funeral, I just can’t bring myself to see eye-to-eye with the Catholic Church any more.
You seem like a decent enough skin, so would you not be better off meeting with victims or visiting a mother-and-baby home than shutting down half of Dublin? (Although you should try to do the Skyline tour in Croke Park. The views are mighty. Would you be able for all the steps in your dress?)
I suppose most of all I’m disappointed in the church. I was raised a Catholic and I do believe in heaven – well, I have to believe my lovely Daddy is in some sort of heaven or I’ll lose my reason altogether.
But I am disappointed. Some of the things your crowd have said over the past few years about gay people getting married and people having abortions is nothing short of shitehawkery. Mammy will probably kill me for saying “shitehawkery” to the Pope but it was actually her who said it first. She’s more disappointed than me. Her auntie had a baby taken off her years ago and the news has been hard to watch this past while. She thinks you have a lot to ask forgiveness for and I think she’s right.
So, I suppose until you ask for it properly then I can’t really get on board with you coming to see us. (But, as you’re coming anyway, you might have a word with any loose-cannon bishops who might have notions about contraception?)
Hopefully you can forgive me, though, for laughing during the Confirmation Mass. And for saying “shitehawkery”. And for using the few prayers I do still say to hope for a win in the county final.
‘The Importance of Being Aisling’ by Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen is out in September
Community animator and asylum seeker from Swaziland
Dear Pope Francis,
It is a great pleasure to have you visit the beautiful island of Ireland. I am privileged to write this letter to you.
I would like to highlight the heartache and suffering many women and young children have suffered under the Catholic Church and also the suffering of asylum seekers and refugees.
As an individual who was raised in a Catholic Church, I held the Church with high respect and I still do for the good teaching.
I would like to request that the Catholic Church (as one of the largest church denominations) take a leading role in supporting refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, just as the Catholic Church took a leading role in providing quality education in the past.
The values of the Catholic Church include a positive view of life and community and common good, yet asylum seekers and refugees are deprived of this due both to their living conditions and society’s perception of them.
The church should look beyond the provision of food and shelter and realise that asylum seekers and refugees are all human beings. We all have feelings and are created by one God.
Families are broken and so many asylum seekers are living with no dignity, and in inhumane conditions in direct provision in Ireland. I believe in this the church can make a difference.
I wish you a safe and fruitful visit to Ireland and, during the Mass services, please remember the many families that are separated because of war, political instability, domestic violence and other unforeseen reasons.
Thank you for your visit.
Writer, producer, theatre director, activist and a founder of THEATREClub
I don’t recognise your spiritual authority. I have sat across tables and held the hands of tearful women who do recognise your power. Your words mean a lot to them.
Those women told me about having their hair chopped off with shears, about being degraded every day; told, “You’re here because nobody wants you”, having their children stolen from them and trafficked to rich Americans.
The violence and abuse perpetrated by your church in this country are still largely unknown.
It’s buried, and we don’t know what’s buried here.
We didn’t know there were 796 babies buried in Tuam.
The impact of violence, forced adoptions, mass unmarked graves, forced illegal labour and State-sponsored secrecy and lies left a population suffering from post-traumatic stress for me to be born into. I have met the legacy of that trauma every day, on my grandmother’s face. In the words of my aunts. In the touch of my mother.
The legacy of the trauma is in the choice every young Irish man makes to buy a rope and take his own life, it’s in every act of sexual violence perpetrated in this country. It affects every interaction I have with the State, and it has ripped from me the right to a spiritual life. It has taken God from me, and so many others of my generation, who have filled the hole left with addiction.
If you were a corporate company, responsible for a chemical leak, what would be the Christian thing to do? Trauma can be invisible.
I’m asking you to do two things: pay for counselling to be made freely available in Ireland. Match our hospitality in paying €8 million for your visit and help us to stop digging to find out what’s buried here.
Because you know. Tell us. Release the records you hold, be honest with us, ask for our forgiveness. The longer it’s buried, the worse it will get.
At the very least, your words mean a lot to the women I have met.
Tell them, “I believe you”.
Journalist and author
Dear Pope Francis,
Where I come from in the North of this island, they used to write “No Pope Here” and “FTP” (ask one of your local bishops) on the walls. Now I never liked that and I wouldn’t want to be that inhospitable, but there are a few things that are making me a bit uneasy about your proposed visit.
You do know, don’t you, that covering up for child abusers is a crime here? Maybe just pack a few extra gowns, in case our authorities arrest you. It isn’t likely, but, you know. Just saying.
You are going to apologise, aren’t you? Throw yourself down in abject shame at the feet of those whose lives your church distorted or destroyed? Seek their advice about how to try to undo some of the damage? (Too late for a lot of people, I’m afraid.)
Do you think you might come out and admit that the celibate-men-only priesthood thing has mangled up sex and sin? That rather a lot of the chosen ones got far too much pleasure out of inflicting punishment?
Could you maybe also ask those that still have dirty secrets to confess them – to our police? You could lead by example. I’d say you know a thing or two. And while you’re at it, maybe confess – to women – that excluding and trying to control us is really just about fear and hatred?
Can I just ask you as well if you’d tell your bishops and their fans to abandon once and for all the efforts they’ve been making to turn back the clock to cruelty time, and instead to help you to start dismantling the whole silly, arcane, patriarchal edifice you and your predecessors in the Vatican have constructed over the centuries? No?
You see, we’ve been working on some of these things ourselves and we’re getting on pretty well. I expect you heard we voted for same-sex marriage and women’s right to control our fertility. They told you that, did they?
Well, we’re feeling kind of liberated here in Ireland right now. We believe our children will have a better chance to enjoy safe, happy and fulfilling lives, and we think that’s important. More important than piety, actually.
To be honest, I’d really far rather you didn’t come. But you’re all set and the faithful await – though you might as well be warned there are a lot fewer of them than in 1979.
I’d just like you to know that when you profess to love us all, some of us know it isn’t true. That we’ve seen what your idea of God’s love has done, and we don’t want your blessings in his name. We believe in human rights, we’re keeping body and soul together and we’ve discovered we like celebrating. We’ve had enough penance. That chalice has passed. To you. Take it back.
Sr Una Rutledge
Member of the Congregation of Our Lady of the Missions (Notre Dame des Missions), Dublin
Dear Holy Father, Pope Francis,
I welcome you to Ireland with great pleasure, hope and expectancy. You are no stranger to our shore, having spent time in Milltown Theological College some years ago.
Since then, Ireland has seen some rapid changes, not always for the better. We can no longer boast of being an island of saints and scholars, because of the gradual chipping away of religion to secularism.
I am confident, however, that your presence will shine a light in the darkness and will give the people of Ireland opportunities to discuss, reflect, and engage in issues affecting family life today. We already have a body of young, committed youth working for church renewal.
I am sure that your visit and words will help to revitalise and energise all of us to stand up and be counted. May it create once more a faith environment into the future, which will influence society and family life for the better.
For those reasons, I heartily welcome you to Ireland.
Céad míle fáilte!
Sr Una Rutledge
Comedian, author and actor
Dear your Holiness,
I know you’re not a stupid man. You’re the Pope! They don’t give just anyone a house containing some of the world’s greatest art works and a car with a big, plastic thing on the top of it. And I was always told, at school, by nuns and visiting priests, that popes were good people. The best, even. So I would hope you are a kind man.
Please don’t over-tax the kindness of the Irish people. Please don’t take us for thicks or, worse, treat us as such. We’re not thick. We don’t forget. We do forgive – you know, like you’re always saying. I’m pretty sure it’s forgiveness that means there isn’t more graffiti on church property; graffiti that wouldn’t exactly say “Welcome, Popeface!”
You know what I’m talking about. Ah, you do. Everybody does. So while I’m personally grand that you’re coming (though I’m afraid the kettle won’t be on for you in my flat; I’m washing my hair), please don’t rub your presence in the faces of those hurting from actions committed in the name of the church.
Your church. The business of which you’re chief executive. Come if you’re determined.
But maybe tone it down, yeah?
Rage In by Tara Flynn is out now
10-year-old altar girl serving Mass in the parish of Clonmacnois
Dia dhuit, Hola, Ciao, Hello Pope Francis,
Céad míle fáilte to Ireland. I am very excited that you are coming here and that my Mammy and Daddy are bringing me to see you in Croke Park. I am from Shannonbridge Co Offaly, and I love to serve Mass in the parish of Clonmacnois. Our priest is Fr Tom Cox. I like him because he listens to our opinions. When I grow up I would love to read the word of God, be a eucharistic minister and help out in the church like my mam and dad do.
We had a brilliant time preparing for your visit and the World Meeting of Families. In our parish we had a lovely evening on the theme of Faith. The church was full and so was my tummy afterwards because we all enjoyed burgers in honour of your visit.
Some of the important things I have learned are to be able to say, “Please”, “Thank you” and “I am sorry”. Thank you for reading this and for coming to visit Ireland, God bless you.