The church brutalised Ireland. People have a right to protest the pope’s visit | Emer O’Toole | Opinion

In 1979, Pope John Paul II visited the Republic of Ireland, and approximately 2.7 million people – 79% of the population – came out to honour him. At the time, contraception, divorce, and homosexuality were illegal, and John Paul II was a god.

On 25 August, when Pope Francis becomes the first pontiff to travel to Ireland in 39 years, he will arrive on the shores of a very different island.

Throughout the 1990s, abuse scandals rocked the Irish Catholic establishment and hastened the process of secularisation. Since then, progressive constitutional and legal change has been slow but consistent, signalling rejection of the church’s moral authority. In 1993 homosexuality was decriminalised; in 1995, a referendum to legalise divorce passed by the slimmest of margins; in 2015, the country voted overwhelmingly to legalise gay marriage; and in June, 66% of the electorate voted to legalise abortion.

The separation of church and state in Ireland is far from complete. For example, the church is still involved in running 90% of state-funded primary schools. It is deeply enmeshed in our medical system. We are still wrestling with the scars of decades of abuse, implemented by the church and facilitated by the state. We are still finding children’s bodies in unmarked mass graves.

But it is not 1979. And while some are preparing for the pope’s visit by pressing their Sunday best, others are making placards and planning protests.

One of these actions – the “Say Nope to the Pope” campaign – is organising folks to book free tickets to papal events in order to leave the seats empty. A pretty civilised and smart act of resistance you would think. Those empty places indicate not an absence, but a presence: a peaceful but legibly indignant presence.

Yet even this is too radical for the Irish political establishment. The leaders of our two main political parties have spoken out against what they clearly deem an act of religious bigotry. Micheál Martin of Fianna Fáil called the action “petty, intolerant, and certainly the opposite of progressive”. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar agreed, deeming the campaign “Wrong, petty, and mean-spirited”, adding that it was not “legitimate protest”.

Less than a decade ago, the Ryan report into child sexual abuse in state-funded, church-run institutions was published, costing the Irish taxpayer €82m. It uncovered decades of horror endured by children in the ostensible care of Catholic organisations: rape, physical violence, neglect and emotional abuse.



‘We are still finding children’s bodies in unmarked mass graves.’ The site of a mass grave for children who died in the Tuam mother and baby home, Galway. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

The government’s redress scheme for the victims of the church cost €1.5bn; a further €176m was spent supporting survivors with health, housing, education and counselling services. While the government hoped that the costs of redress could be shared 50:50 between the Catholic church and the Irish taxpayer, the church has contributed just €192m to help those it tortured and abused.

But, remember, booking seats to the papal mass in order to leave them empty is “petty”.

In 2009, the Murphy report on the sexual abuse of children in the archdiocese of Dublin revealed that the Catholic church’s priority in dealing with paedophilia was not child welfare, but rather secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of its reputation and the preservation of church assets. In 2011, the Cloyne report found that Bishop John Magee, acting on a “secret letter” from Rome, covered up child sex abuse rather than reporting it to authorities. The Ferns report, the Raphoe report, the Limerick report – all have revealed cover-ups, callous disregard for child welfare, and concern predominantly for the character and coffers of the church.

Irish taxpayers financed all of these inquiries, and now they must pay up to €20m to welcome the head of the organisation responsible for these crimes. But peacefully protesting the Pope’s visit is “intolerant”.

In Magdalene laundries, women were incarcerated and forced to perform backbreaking work without pay although they had committed no crimes. In mother and baby homes, women’s children were taken from them, illegally adopted, or put into abusive institutions where they could be neglected to death and thrown into unmarked graves. Brutal symphysiotomies carried out in Irish hospitals traumatised and disabled women for life, because the church had some insane objection to caesarean sections.

But booking tickets for a mass that you don’t plan to attend is “wrong”.

I simply don’t have the scope in this article to do justice to the litany of the Catholic church’s crimes in Ireland. Suffice to say: protesting about the pope’s visit – with empty seats, placards, or any other peaceful means – is legitimate, warranted, progressive and necessary. It sends the message that we are sick of paying – spiritually, emotionally, economically – for the evils perpetrated by the church; that we want religious orders out of our state schools and hospitals; that we want our politicians to act on evidence, not religious beliefs; that we deserve a secular society.

I cannot imagine a less “mean-spirited” message.

Emer O’Toole is assistant professor of Irish performance studies at Concordia University in Canada

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