Abuse scandal makes NI papal trip ‘highly unlikely’

Pope Francis will visit the Republic of Ireland this summer.
Pope Francis will visit the Republic of Ireland this summer.

Political failure and the “very messy situation” of clerical child abuse are the main reasons the pope will not visit Northern Ireland later this year, a leading Catholic commentator has said.

Martin O’Brien, of the Irish Catholic newspaper, made the comments after it was confirmed that Pope Francis will be in Dublin in August for the World Meeting of Families.

When the two-day papal visit was unofficially announced by then taoiseach Enda Kenny in November 2016, Mr Kenny said: “Obviously if that means that he also travels to Northern Ireland we will assist and co-operate in making whatever arrangements.”

At the time, DUP leader Arlene Foster said that if she was first minister she would be prepared to meet him if, as a head of state, he travelled to Northern Ireland.

Speaking on Wednesday, Mr O’Brien said the political impasse at Stormont meant the Vatican’s focus was “very much on the World Meeting of Families,” and added: “If there was an issue that might have tipped the decision not to go to the north, in addition to the political uncertainly, it might be the recent developments regarding clerical sexual abuse – because you have a very messy situation unfolding now, with more revelations in regards to Malachy Finnegan and we don’t know where that will end.

“Somebody who is well-placed, said to me not very long ago that that scandal may become as big as Brendan Smyth,” Mr O’Brien told the BBC’s Evening Extra programme.

However, Irish Catholic editor Michael Kelly told the News Letter he wouldn’t rule out a trip north.

Mr Kelly said an upsurge in violence around the time of the pope’s visit to Ireland in 1979 meant it was deemed “unsafe” for John Paul II to cross the border, and there had been concerns around having such a large gathering of Catholics which might have been a target for a sectarian attack.

“So the pope wasn’t able to cross the border in 1979 and that hurt was acutely felt by northern Catholics,” he said.

“While understanding why he couldn’t go north, they were acutely disappointed by it. I think people will find it hard to fathom why the pope couldn’t take a 15 or 20-minute chopper ride up the road to Armagh and participate in some kind of Christian unity service ... or prayer vigil,” Mr Kelly added.

The last papal visit to Ireland was in 1979 when an estimated 2.7 million turned out to see Pope John Paul II over three days.

In a statement, the Catholic Church said the pope will arrive on Saturday, August 25, to take part in the ‘Festival of Families’ in Croke Park, then, on Sunday August 26, the pope will be the chief celebrant at a mass in Phoenix Park.

In 2016, as speculation of a Northern Ireland visit intensified, Free Presbyterian minister Rev Ian Brown of the Martyrs’ Memorial Church said: “The only proper response to his high publicity visit is a solid protest.”

Rev Trevor Gribben, clerk of the General Assembly and general secretary of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, said on Wednesday: “I am sure that many, many Roman Catholic people both south and north of the border will be very excited and encouraged by the news that the leader of their church will be coming to Dublin for this significant event.

“I’ve no doubt that many others, of differing theological or even political views, will want to join with our Roman Catholic neighbours in welcoming today’s news.

“The attendance of Pope Francis at the World Meeting of Families will greatly enhance the affirmation of the place of the family at the heart of society, and that is to be welcomed.”