In 1979, as he celebrated a Youth Mass at Ballybrit Racecourse, Co. Galway, Pope John Paul II told the young people of Ireland that he loved them. It was a significant moment, and, for a time, it emboldened an authoritarian Irish Catholic Church. It was also the beginning of the end.

Almost forty years later, as another pope stood on a stage in Ireland, the focus was not on his declarations of love, but on his willingness to make reparations. Pope Francis, who recently made a two-day visit to Ireland, began delivering mass in Dublin’s Phoenix Park at 3 p.m. on Sunday, 26 August, before an estimated 200,000 people, far fewer than the expected 500,000. (The equivalent ceremony in 1979 drew audiences of more than a million.)

At the same time, a crowd of several thousand gathered a few miles away at the Garden of Remembrance, in the city centre. They had come to ‘Stand for Truth’, and show solidarity with the victims of clerical abuse in Ireland and elsewhere. The event was organised by Colm O’Gorman, who was repeatedly raped by a priest as a teenager. The abuse began 18 months after John Paul II’s visit and went on for two and a half years.

There were baby shoes tied to the railings surrounding the memorial garden. The writer Marian Keyes told the crowd that ‘fear is contagious, and everyone was afraid’. ‘Ireland is changing,’ the artist and activist Grace Dyas said. ‘The world is watching.’ The two middle-aged women beside me hugged for a long time.

Around 4.30 p.m., the crowd made its way in silence to Sean McDermott Street, a short walk away, where the last Magdalene Laundry in Ireland closed in 1996. The procession had a funereal air; onlookers stood quietly on pavements, or peered out from windows and doors. When we reached the building – which the state plans to sell, despite public opposition, to a Japanese hotel group – we wrote short messages on white sheets that were hung in front of the main entrance. ‘Sorry, we didn’t know,’ said one.

Did people know? The Magdalene Laundries – workhouses, managed by nuns, where unmarried pregnant women and girls were incarcerated – were officially ‘voluntary’ and ‘charitable’, and so exempt from inspections, but their punitive regime, the residents toiling as unpaid commercial laundry workers, wasn’t a secret. Other institutions, such as the Mother and Baby Homes – where unmarried mothers were sent to give birth, and to give up their babies – were run by the Church but governed by state legislation, funded out of taxation and subject to official inspection. Families funnelled their daughters in secret to the Homes and Laundries. Victims of clerical abuse who tried to speak up were not believed.

The demonstrations on 26 August – there was another at the site of the former Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Co. Galway, where the unmarked graves of almost 800 children have been discovered – were as much a collective act of atonement as they were a protest against a still recalcitrant Church.

‘It turns out,’ Keyes said, ‘that like fear, courage is also contagious.’ In the past, any willingness by the Irish state to make recompense has not been accompanied by firm action from the Church, but it is hard to see how it can continue to resist. On the day of the pope’s arrival, the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, appeared on Irish radio. Probed time and again about clerical abuse, he retreated into a corner. ‘Oh, you’re back to the abuse issue. You’re a bit preoccupied, if you don’t mind my saying,’ he said. ‘Well, yes I am,’ the host responded. Yes, we all are.