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Pope lands in Ireland amid priest abuse scandal

By Laura Smith-Spark and Hilary Clarke, CNN

    (CNN) -- Pope Francis has arrived in Ireland on the first papal visit to the majority Roman Catholic nation for almost 40 years amid one of the worst sexual abuse scandals the Church has yet faced.

The 81-year-old Pontiff will meet President Michael Higgins and Prime Minister Leo Varadkar during the two-day visit, that falls just a few days after the release of a Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing decades of clerical pedophilia and coverups.

The Pope will also find Ireland a very different country to the one visited by John Paul II in 1979. The seismic social changes in Ireland over recent years are best symbolized by the election last year of Varadkar, who is gay, and the referendum three months ago that legalized abortion.

Still, the Argentinian Pope remains highly popular in Ireland and tens of thousands of people are expected at Dublin's Croke Park stadium Saturday evening for a concert-style event to mark the Catholic Church's triennial World Festival of Families that falls this week.

Hundreds of thousands more will attend a Mass celebrated by the Pope at the city's Phoenix Park on Sunday afternoon, with all 500,000 tickets for the free event booked out.

However, Pope Francis is also expected to face unprecedented protests over the Catholic Church's handling of the clerical abuse scandal. One, dubbed "Stand for Truth," will take place at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin's Parnell Square at the same time as the Mass is celebrated.

Some protesters also say they have booked tickets to the event in Phoenix Park but will deliberately not use them as a form of silent protest against the Catholic Church and its actions. Organizers of the "Say Nope to the Pope" protest said on Facebook they hoped to show solidarity to abuse victims and "show the Church they don't have the control they used to."

On Tuesday the grand jury in Pennsylvania issued a report that 300 Catholic priests across the US state sexually abused children over seven decades, protected by church leaders.

The investigation, one of the broadest inquiries into church sex abuse in American history, identified 1,000 child victims, but said there were likely thousands more.

"Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all," the grand jury wrote.

Amid rising international outrage, the Vatican confirmed this week that the Pope would meet privately with victims of clerical sexual abuse in Ireland during his visit to the country. It has not said where or when that meeting will take place.

It is also "very possible" that the Pope will publicly address the topic of abuse during his visit, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke told reporters.

Burke added that the pontiff would pray at St. Mary's Pro Cathedral in Dublin on Saturday, where a candle has burned for years in remembrance of the country's victims of sexual abuse.

While in Ireland, the pontiff will also call on Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and President Michael Higgins, meet with representatives of the government and civil society at Dublin Castle and pay a private visit to a day center for homeless families run by Capuchin friars.

On Sunday morning, he will make a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Knock in County Mayo, more than 100 miles west of Dublin, where he will lead prayers for families around the world. All 45,000 tickets for this event are also booked out.

The last papal visit to Ireland was by Pope John Paul II in September 1979. More than a million people gathered for the papal Mass in Phoenix Park on that occasion, according to the Irish Times, representing about a third of the country's population at the time.

On Monday, Francis acknowledged "with shame and repentance" the Catholic Church's failure to act over clerical abuse. In an unusually blunt letter, he wrote: "We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them."

The letter directly referred to the Pennsylvania report, which "detailed the experiences of at least 1,000 survivors, victims of sexual abuse, the abuse of power and of conscience at the hands of priests over a period of approximately 70 years," the Pope wrote.

Meanwhile, memories of Ireland's own abuse scandal are still vivid. And survivors have been critical of Francis' response so far.

Colm O'Gorman, an abuse survivor who is now executive director of Amnesty International Ireland, is behind the Stand for Truth protest.

He told CNN that the Vatican's announcement this week had created a "soap opera" in Ireland, with members of the media repeatedly calling survivors to ask whether they had been granted an audience with the pontiff.

Clerical abuse survivor Marie Collins, who resigned last year from a special Vatican commission created by Pope Francis to tackle child abuse, saying that senior clerics in the Church refused to implement their suggested safety policies, said she wanted to see action, not words.

"What I would like to see when the Pope comes to Ireland, is to come out, not make these sort of 'we're sorry,' type of statements, but to tell us what is he going to do -- and do it," Collins, who was assaulted by a priest when she was 13, told CNN.

"And it must be something concrete."

In 2009, the Dublin Archdiocese Commission of Investigation released a 720-page report that said that it had "no doubt that clerical child sexual abuse was covered up" from January 1975 to May 2004, the time covered by the report. The commission had been set up in 2006 to look into allegations of child sexual abuse made against clergy in the Irish capital.

The report named 11 priests who had pleaded guilty to or were convicted of sexual assaults on children. Of the other 35, it gave pseudonyms to 33 of them and redacted the names of two.

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