ONE week from now, the Irish Catholic bishops will travel to Rome to discuss with Pope Benedict XVI the disclosures of clerical sex abuse which culminated in the Murphy report on the archdiocese of Dublin, and which, along with the shocking evidence of mishandling and cover-ups, have shaken the church in Ireland to its roots.
At the centre will be Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin. He was appointed to his high and immensely demanding office in 2004 for the specific, though not openly stated, purpose of carrying out reform -- not only in respect of the sex abuse scandals but on church governance and more widely.
The Murphy report bore out the wisdom of his appointment and his actions. He warned the archdiocese and the nation, in advance, of the dreadful truths it would contain. The truths were indeed dreadful. But the response often differed from what might have been expected.
It is evident that many bishops and priests in Dublin and elsewhere are "in denial": unable to grasp the depth of individual responsibility for betrayals of trust, but also and more significantly the implications for the church of the systemic failure which permitted the crimes and the cover-ups.
Now, virtually on the eve of the Rome meeting, resentment and protest have come to the point of what has been described as "open revolt". That in itself is more than sufficiently dramatic and alarming. But Dr Martin's critics have not grasped a further point. At stake here is nothing less than the future of the church in Ireland.
During the past two centuries it became, and remained, the most influential and respected institution in the country. It also became, especially in the mid-20th century, the most arrogant, openly claiming a higher position than that of the civil power.
Sadly, the reforms decided by the Vatican Council in the 1960s were ignored or reversed in Ireland. Now reform must come in less propitious circumstances. The days are gone when the church could expect unquestioning obedience. Its Irish members now are educated and sceptical, as well as devastated by the sex abuse disclosures. To retain their faith and loyalty, the bishops must institute radical and urgent reform, and must be seen as united on the question. The stark alternative is a fatal and permanent loss of authority. That would be tragic -- not just for the church but for the country.