UNTIL very recently, public questioning of past actions by the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland would have bordered on the unthinkable. Even farther outside the realms of possibility would have been calls for his resignation.
In the 1990s the church, though damaged, survived the arrest and conviction of the paedophile priest Brendan Smyth. He was found guilty of a string of abominable crimes. But attention concentrated instead on the fall of the Fianna Fail-Labour coalition, caught up in a controversy over a request for his extradition to Northern Ireland on similar offences.
Since then the church, the nation and the world have changed. The publication of the Ferns, Ryan and Murphy reports have had a devastating effect on public opinion and on the authority and prestige of the institution. The recent Rome meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and the Irish bishops has been widely judged a failure, ending without any tangible outcome.
For these and other reasons, it was inevitable that when actions of Cardinal Sean Brady as a young priest in 1975 were called into question, he would be subjected to a searing scrutiny unfamiliar to his predecessors.
To the lay person, the events of 1975, though innocent, appear bizarre. As part-time secretary to the then Bishop of Kilmore, he took part in interviewing two of Smyth's victims. He believed their stories and sent a report to the bishop. Meanwhile, they signed an oath of silence.
Yesterday Cardinal Brady said that he had no intention of resigning. He defended his own actions and those of the bishop. But he did not appear to be seized of an issue of supreme importance.
There is by now abundant evidence, in Ireland and elsewhere, of a culture of cover-up operated by the church. It is beyond doubt that frequently there was deliberate and systematic exclusion of the civil authorities -- in plain language, that crimes were concealed.
What is not clear is the extent to which the church in Ireland -- or the Vatican -- realises the implications of the past or the needs of the present. Cardinal Brady may reconsider the question of resignation, but making himself a sacrificial victim would achieve little or nothing.
The church must understand that it faces an urgent choice, much deeper than the cardinal's unenviable situation. It must engage in reform and repentance, or fall into decay. And appetite for reform, sadly, seems lacking.