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Pope Francis must offer more than words to heal wounds caused by Catholic Church

Pope Francis arrives in Ireland. Credit: PA

As a little girl spending family summers in Ireland the church dominates my memories almost as much as the rolling fields and driving rain.

There was no question that Sunday meant mass and that meant a good outfit, an ironed hanky and the dreaded washed hair. I remember sunny mornings standing in the imposing shadow of the vast church amazed at the sheer number of people. Cars parked for hundreds of yards on the side of the road.

Women we were more used to seeing in house-coats or aprons decked out and made up. Men, hands freshly scrubbed but not quite clean of their hard labours, fiddling with suits only ever seen in church. Literally the Sunday best. And of course whilst it was a time for prayer and reflection it also offered the chance to show off a new outfit or car to the neighbours.

The church wasn’t just a part of life, it was one of the pillars of it and seemed unassailable.

I was only four the first and last time a Pope came to Ireland. It sounded like a wonderful spectacle, so of course I wanted to go. As it was I ended up watching it on the telly. Streets and homes decked out with flags, all those people waiting for him, the cheers and delight when Pope John Paul II told the young people of Ireland that he loved them.

John Paul II was the last pope to visit Ireland. Credit: PA

And yet then, as for generations before and after, the most terrible harm was being done to the young people of the church.

Now I am here to report on a papal visit - and how times have changed.

There is no doubt that to many the visit of Pope Francis is joyous and important but the flags are not out in the same way and the streets will not be filled in the same way either. The narrative is different too. A declaration of love is no longer enough to warm hearts, too much has been exposed.

One abuse survivor I spoke to today, Colm O’Gorman, summed up this visit telling me: “The Pope who we welcome to this country is the head of a state that is directly implicated in the rape and abuse, the violation, the brutality and brutalisation of tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of children, women and vulnerable adults. A state that sought to cover up those crimes.”

Pope Francis, a self proclaimed man of the people, cannot right the wrongs that have been done but as the head of the church he must offer more than words to those so affected.

The Catholic Church is no longer that unassailable pillar of society. It has harmed itself from the inside out - but the real harm has been done to those who fell prey to its most malevolent members.