Queen's Policy Engagement

The Catholic Church has gotten better at saying sorry – but is anyone listening?

For many years, apologies from the Catholic Church have been received as hollow, even insincere says Professor Gladys Ganiel and Dr Caoimhe Ní Dhónaill.

The Catholic Church has gotten better at saying sorry – but is anyone listening?

If once the Catholic Church exerted a ‘moral monopoly’ over Irish life, in recent decades revelations of abuses and cover-ups have left its reputation in tatters. Church efforts to repair the damage have included public apologies. These apologies are intended for victims and for all citizens betrayed by an institution that was entrusted with the care of women, children, and vulnerable people.

For many years, these apologies have been received as hollow, even insincere. A 2018 study concluded that most Church apologies had been ineffective because of the words chosen by church leaders when delivering them. Cardinal Seán Brady’s 2010 apology avoided responsibility with vague words about ‘hurt’ caused by ‘any failure on my part’. Cardinal Desmond Connell’s 2009 apology following the publication of the Murphy Report on abuses in the Dublin archdiocese did not acknowledge his own responsibility for mishandling clerical abuse.

New research at Queen’s University Belfast has revealed that the Catholic Church has gotten better at saying sorry. The study analyzed public documents produced by religious groups on the island during the Covid-19 pandemic (March 2020-February 2023), paying special attention to discussion of historic abuse and safeguarding; and to online safety at a time when most social interaction moved online.

A Queen’s University report on the documents concludes that apologies offered during this time ‘do not offer excuses or create scapegoats. They are usually very detailed, with acceptance of full culpability on behalf of the church, acknowledging that forgiveness is not expected from victims.’

Yet unlike the ‘bad’ apologies of previous years, which received public attention, these more recent ‘good’ apologies have failed to penetrate public consciousness, remaining buried on the websites of the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference and various dioceses. Who among the victims, survivors, and others impacted by the Church’s long legacy of abuse have heard these words?


Pope Francis’ Apology

There is greater public awareness of Pope Francis’ apology during his 2018 visit to Ireland, which can be considered a template for the Irish Church’s later apologies. During his Mass in the Phoenix Park, Francis unequivocally identified the Church’s specific sins and asked for forgiveness:

We ask for forgiveness for those places of exploitation of manual work, that so many young women and men were subjected to. … In a special way we ask pardon for all the abuses committed in various types of institutions run by male or female religious, and by other members of the church. … We ask forgiveness, for the time that as a church we did not show the survivors of whatever kind of abuse compassion, in the seeking of justice and truth, and concrete actions. … We ask forgiveness for some members of the church hierarchy, who did not take charge of these painful situations and kept quiet. We ask for forgiveness for all those single mothers who were told that to seek their children that had been separated from them … that this was a mortal sin, this is not a mortal sin.

But while this was a ‘good’ apology, a nationally-representative poll conducted shortly after Francis’ visit revealed that the most popular view among Irish people was that Francis had not done enough to address abuse during his visit, and that the visit had not been a healing time for victims and survivors.

Saying sorry, and saying it well, was not considered good enough. People want actions that will help repair the damage done. And while Francis has been criticized for inaction – not least by Irish abuse survivor Marie Collins – in 2017 he initiated a Church-wide Day of Prayer for Victims and Survivors of Abuse.


Saying Sorry in Ireland

The Catholic Church in Ireland has embraced this Day of Prayer. In 2019, all Irish parishes were urged to mark the Day by lighting ‘candles of atonement’ as ‘a reminder of the faithful of the need for atonement and to symbolize repentance.’ The practice, which was directly inspired by Francis’ words in the Phoenix Park, continues.

Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin has used this Day as an opportunity to offer an annual apology, with clear and direct language:

No wonder so many people who have been abused find it so very difficult to forgive or to trust the Church any more. They need to hear from Church leaders like me, that we realise the harm that has been done to them, that we are sorry for that, and that we want to make atonement. And I repeat that to them today. I am sorry for what happened to you. I am sorry for the terrible failures and crimes that happened in your Church, and I want to do my best to ensure that no one else suffers in the way that you did.

Survivors are also advised they can access the services of Towards Peace, a Church-based organization that responds to the needs of those whose spirituality has been damaged through abuse in a Church context.

The Church’s safeguarding policies are also signposted in the public documents. This is in part because safeguarding is a legal requirement, north and south. But the documents also highlight the bravery of the victims and survivors who spoke out, their testimonies forcing religious institutions to change.

The Church also began to promote a ‘theology of safeguarding’. In a spirit of self-reflection prompted by the pandemic experience, beginning in January 2021 the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland produced a series of monthly videos on the theology of safeguarding, culminating in a national conference on ‘the theology of safeguarding’ in May 2022.


Money Talks

And while it cannot be expected that these efforts would garner the same attention as a papal visit, public awareness of the Irish Church’s more penitential posture remains minimal. Church policies have been contrasted negatively with the five official state apologies for historical abuse in church-run institutions, which were more forceful and specific than early Church apologies. Moreover, the state has offered at least some means of redress, including financial compensation. Religious orders have paid just €128 million of the €1.5 billion in compensation.

It is important that the Irish Catholic Church has gotten better at saying sorry. But even good apologies, in and of themselves, are never enough to right historical wrongs. It remains to be seen if apologies can inspire further reforms and means of redress, placing justice for victims and survivors at the centre.


Staying Safe during the Covid-19 Pandemic: Religious Organisations and the Safeguarding of Young People on the Island of Ireland, by Dr Caoimhe Ní Dhónaill, was published in March 2024 by Queen’s University Belfast. It is part of the research project, ‘The Changing Role of Religion in Societies Emerging from Covid-19’, for which Prof Gladys Ganiel is the principal investigator.

As part of this project, the Queen’s researchers are inviting people to respond to an island-wide survey on the role of religion since the Covid-19 pandemic. The online questionnaire is open to anyone who is at least 17-years-old and belongs to a Christian, Muslim or Humanist on the island of Ireland, north or south. The questionnaire asks people about their personal engagement with religion before, during, and after the pandemic (including religion online); their opinions on the role of government and religious institutions during the pandemic; and their views on the role of medical science and vaccinations. It can be completed here.



Photo by Coronel Gonorrea on Unsplash

Posted by

Gladys Ganiel is a Professor in the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work at Queen’s University Belfast. Dr Caoimhe Ni Dhonaill is a Research Fellow in the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work at Queen’s University Belfast.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *