DUBLIN— Pope Francis voiced “pain and shame” over the abuse of children by Catholic priests in his first speech in Ireland, one of the countries hit hardest by the scandal, but his remarks failed to assuage critics who had been calling for the pontiff to acknowledge the Vatican’s responsibility for the scandal and set out concrete steps to combat it.
The pontiff’s two-day visit to Ireland comes as clerical sex-abuse scandals are unfolding in several other countries, including the U.S., so the pope’s words and gestures on the subject have significance far beyond the island nation’s shores.
Pressure on the Vatican has been rising since the release of a Pennsylvania report documenting charges that more than 300 priests abused more 1,000 victims over a period of 70 years. Recent days have seen a crescendo of criticism of the Vatican’s response to the scandals, raising demands for a robust statement from the pope.
“The failure of ecclesiastical authorities—bishops, religious superiors, priests and others—adequately to address these repugnant crimes has rightly given rise to outrage,” the pope told Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and other dignitaries in Dublin Castle on Saturday.
Though he promised to “adopt stringent norms” to tackle the issue, he didn’t recognize any responsibility by the Vatican for the coverup, or lay out concrete steps to prevent further abuse.
His remarks drew a swift response from advocates of abuse victims who have criticized his response to the crisis as inadequate.
“Pope Francis speaks of the pain and shame of the ‘Catholic community,’ and then says he shares those sentiments,” wrote Colm O’Gorman, a sex-abuse victim and executive director of Amnesty International Ireland, on Twitter. “This seems to me to be a shameful deflection of responsibility on the part of the Pope, and an insult to faithful Catholics who have no reason to feel shame because of the crimes of the Vatican and the institutional church.”
Two members of the group described the meeting as “cordial and polite,” and said that the pope had likened corruption and coverup in the church to excrement, using the Spanish word “caca.”
During his appearance with Mr. Varadkar, Pope Francis cited his own letter to the world’s Catholics last Monday, in which he denounced what he called atrocities by priests and reaffirmed his commitment to the protection of children and punishment of the guilty, including those who covered up the crimes.
But Catholics here and in other countries have criticized the letter for not specifying measures to make bishops more accountable when they fail to discipline and report abusive priests.
Pope Francis’ initiatives with regard to sex abuse since his election in 2013 have run into difficulties. He established an advisory commission on child protection, but both of the victims on the original panel resigned in protest over what they said was against Vatican inaction. He announced a special tribunal to discipline bishops for neglecting or covering up abuse, but he abandoned that project amid opposition from Vatican officials. The pope instituted a special process for disciplining bishops for the same offenses, but he didn’t use it to deal with a major abuse scandal in Chile, letting bishops there resign.
No country in the Catholic world has suffered more trauma from revelation of clerical sex abuse than Ireland, where Catholicism was traditionally inseparable from national identity and where until recent decades the church enjoyed unquestioned prestige and credibility.
The sexual and physical abuse by clergy and in Catholic institutions here, documented in a series of judicial inquiries, has been a key factor in the decline of Catholic affiliation and practice. In 2016, 78% of the Irish described themselves as Catholic, down from 93% in 1981, but church-attendance rates have fallen even more steeply.
One government report, based on a study the Archdiocese of Dublin between 1974 and 2004, examined reports of abuse of more than 320 children but concluded that the actual numbers were far higher, noting that a single priest had admitted to abusing more than 100 children.
Mr. O’Gorman has written that the “numbers of victims of rape and sexual assault at the hands of priests across Ireland likely runs to tens of thousands,” in a country with a current population of 4.8 million.
The pope’s trip to Ireland was an opportunity for the Vatican to improve relations with a country that remains a stronghold for the church in Europe. But fresh criticism of the church’s failure to hold abusers and their protectors to account has rekindled resentment in a country where many say the church abused its outsize power in society.
Mr. Varadkar, in his own speech, described the historical abuses as “failures of both church and state,” but he also called on the pope to “bring about justice and truth and healing for victims and survivors” around the world.
The prime minister concluded by calling for a “new relationship between church and state in Ireland…one in which religion is no longer at the center of our society, but in which it still has an important place.”
The pope was greeted by clear and sunny weather but few people on the streets, a contrast with other traditionally Catholic countries, where he is often met by cheering crowds.
In 1979, during the last papal trip to Ireland, Pope John Paul II drew 1.25 million people, more than a third of the country’s population at the time, to an outdoor Mass in Dublin’s Phoenix Park.
Pope Francis is set to celebrate Mass on the same site on Sunday afternoon. Abuse victims led by Mr. O’Gorman will hold a protest demonstration in another city park at the same time.
On Saturday night, the Pope was scheduled to address the World Meeting of Families, a Vatican-sponsored gathering which is the reason for his visit.
Write to Francis X. Rocca at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Wall Street Journal