ROME - Victims of the Catholic Church's clergy sex abuse scandal are calling on Pope Francis to take a strong stance against predator priests during his visit to Ireland.
The pope Saturday begins the first papal visit in nearly 40 years to Ireland. The country has changed greatly since Pope John Paul II visited in 1979, becoming much more secular following clerical sexual abuse scandals that began to surface in 2005.
Pope Francis' visit comes at a time when recent sexual abuse crises in the United States, Chile, and Australia have reminded the Irish people of similar scandals at the hands of Irish priests and bishops.
Many abuse victims, their families and supporters are calling on the pope to do more than just hold a private meeting with a select group of survivors. Protesters will gather in Dublin while the pope says Mass on Sunday urging him to take concrete action against sex abuse.
A prominent Irish abuse survivor, Marie Collins, told a Vatican-sponsored conference on Friday that the Catholic Church must put in place "robust structures" to hold abusive clergy accountable.
"Anyone in the Vatican who would stand in the way of proper protection of children should be accountable as well," said Collins, a former member of Pope Francis' abuse advisory board.
The Vatican has announced that Pope Francis will be meeting with victims of clerical sexual abuse and says he will also visit Saint Mary's Cathedral in Dublin to pray for victims.
The Vatican's chief spokesman Greg Burke told Irish broadcaster RTE on Friday that the sexual abuse scandal is the result of a "cultural problem" that will take time to remedy.
He suggested that the pope would not be announcing specific measures during his trip.
"I think in 36 hours — or 32 hours on the ground — it's hard to change a culture," he said.
"In terms of moving to actions, that will happen. But it doesn't happen overnight … Let's first listen to the pope, and that in itself is an important part of this," Burke said.
This past week, the pope wrote a letter to the world's Catholics, stressing that, "No effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated."
The Catholic Church is much less dominant in public life in Ireland than it once was. The country has recently voted to legalize same-sex marriage and abortion, and has put a gay prime minister in office.
Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said he is glad the Church is less influential.
"I think it still has a place in our society but not one that determines public policy or determines our laws," he said.
Pope Francis' visit to Ireland was originally meant to focus on attending and closing the World Meeting of Families, which is held once every three years to discuss matters of importance to the family unit. However, the latest abuse scandals around the world have shifted the focus, in part, to how the Vatican will respond to the matter.
Two U.S. cardinals were scheduled to attend the conference in Dublin but will be absent due to further revelations of clerical sexual abuse at home. They are Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the pope's top adviser on clerical sexual abuse, and Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington. Another U.S. cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, was recently forced to resign due to allegations of abuse and misconduct.
Sabina Castelfranco in Rome contributed.