KNOCK, Ireland (AP) — Pope Francis on Sunday denounced how Irish children were "robbed of their innocence and taken from their mothers" by Catholic-run institutions that put them up for adoption to erase the shame of having been born to unwed mothers.
Francis spoke out about Ireland's haunted history of forced adoptions during a prayer Sunday in Knock, the country's main shrine dedicated to Christ's mother, Mary. His comments, on the second and final day of his visit to Ireland, came after an emotional meeting with abuse victims on Saturday, including some forced adoptees.
"None of us can fail to be moved by the stories of young people who suffered abuse, were robbed of their innocence or taken away from their mothers, abandoned and left scarred by painful memories," he said. "This open wound challenges us to be firm and decisive in the pursuit of truth and justice."
Ireland has thousands of now-adult adoptees who were wrenched away at birth from their unwed mothers, who had been forced to go live and work in laundries and other workhouses for "fallen women."
One forced adoptee, Clodagh Malone, said Francis was "shocked" at what they told him and "he listened to each and every one of us with respect and compassion."
The survivors asked Francis to speak out Sunday to let all the mothers know that they did nothing wrong and that it wasn't a sin — as church officials have told them — to try to find their children later in life.
They said the Argentine pope understood well their plight, given Argentina's own history of forced adoptions of children born to purported leftists during its 1970s military dictatorship.
"That is a big step forward for a lot of elderly women, particularly in the countryside in Ireland, who have lived 30, 40, 50, 60 years in fear," another adoptee, Paul Redmond, told The Associated Press. "That would mean a lot to them."
Francis' first day in Ireland was dominated by the abuse scandal and Ireland's fraught history of atrocities committed in the name of purifying the Catholic faith. He received a lukewarm reception on the streets, but tens of thousands of people thronged Dublin's Croke Park Stadium on Saturday night for a family rally featuring Ireland's famous Riverdance performers and tenor Andrea Boccelli.
The abuse scandal has devastated the church's reputation in Ireland since the 1990s and has exploded anew in the U.S.
The U.S. scandal took on a new twist Sunday, with a former Vatican ambassador to the U.S. penning a letter accusing Vatican officials of knowing about the sexual escapades of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick since 2000, but making him a cardinal anyway. The letter attributed to Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano was published Sunday by two conservative outlets, the National Catholic Register and LifeSiteNews.
Francis accepted McCarrick's resignation as cardinal last month after a U.S. church investigation determined an accusation he molested a minor was "credible." But in the letter, Vigano said McCarrick had been initially sanctioned by the Vatican in 2009 or 2010 but that Francis rehabilitated him in 2013 despite being informed of McCarrick's penchant to invite young seminarians into his bed.
The Vatican didn't immediately comment on the letter.
Francis sought to respond to the outcry over the U.S. and global sex abuse and cover-up scandal during a speech Saturday to Irish government authorities at Dublin Castle.
"The failure of ecclesiastical authorities — bishops, religious superiors, priests and others — to adequately address these repugnant crimes has rightly given rise to outrage, and remains a source of pain and shame for the Catholic community," he told them. "I myself share these sentiments."
But neither his words nor the meeting with victims assuaged demands for heads to roll over the abuse scandal.
Colm O'Gorman, who is leading a rally Sunday in Dublin for abuse victims, said Francis' remarks about sharing the shame were an "insult to faithful Catholics, who have no reason to feel shame because of the crimes of the Vatican and the institutional church."
Survivors of one of Ireland's wretched mother-and-baby homes planned to demonstrate Sunday at Tuam, site of a mass grave of hundreds of babies who died at a church-run home.
Francis was not far away at Knock on Sunday but did not visit the site at Tuam. He did, however, hear about Tuam from Ireland's minister for children, Katherine Zappone. Their conversation Saturday wasn't released but Francis said her words "still echo in my ears."
Deeply Catholic Ireland has had one of the world's worst records of clergy sex abuse and the ill-treatment of women and children. Government-mandated inquiries concluded that thousands of children were raped or molested by priests or physically abused in church-run schools — and Irish bishops worked for years to hide those crimes.