Bishops are first to show humility in face of this moral tsunami
THE heads of religious orders have traditionally regarded themselves as intellectually a cut above Lord bishops, who have often reciprocated with shows of touchy paranoid inferiority in zealously protecting their role as the Irish church's official leaders and teachers.
This perception of the multi-robed religious orders as lofty strategic thinkers, and purple-clad bishops as remote figures, has been dramatically shattered in the past week by their starkly different reactions to the traumatic fallout from the Abuse Commission report.
It is the bishops, and not the orders, who have demonstrated a real sense of contrition, a firm purpose of amendment and a determined sense of moving towards a more humble and accountable Church.
In a skilfully choreographed media campaign, Cardinal Sean Brady and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin have waltzed rings round the religious orders, whose unity has been cast in disarray by the slowness of their response to the fathomless depth of public anger at the systematic physical, sexual and emotional atrocities inflicted on the thousands of victims.
Although the Conference of Religious of Ireland (CORI), which represents 138 religious congregations, including the 18 frontline signatories to the infamous 2002 indemnity deal, knew well in advance the date of the Ryan Report's publication, they had nothing to offer in their initial statements other than crocodile tears of apology. They were ill-prepared for a moral tsunami.
Their dogmatic refusal the next day to renegotiate the seven-year-old €127m indem- nity agreement made their renewed apologies to the victims sound like Pontius Pilate hand-wringing.
In contrast to this legalistic and seemingly callous misreading of the rising public wrath, it was left to the bishops over the weekend to address the nation's volcanic sense of disillusion and devastation with the religious superiors.
The episcopal bid to command the moral high ground started on Sunday.
Father Tim Bartlett, acting as the John the Baptist for the cardinal, went on the airwaves to say that it was his personal belief that the religious orders should pay more. For this he was instantly blessed by his bishop, Noel Treanor.
This was the signal for Dr Martin to mount his media pulpit, with a call for the orders to make a new gesture, perhaps the formation of a trust for victims.
This was quickly followed by Cardinal Brady's Benediction appeal from Maynooth for the orders to revisit the deal. The 18 congregations held to their position that the deal was not for turning on Monday.
This reaffirmation may yet have sounded the death-knell of "the indemnity 18 group" -- an ad hoc bargaining club which was united only in the individual pacts they made to government.
But it did not spell the demise of CORI, whose reputation has been badly dented by its umbrella association with the gang of 18.
The Christian Brothers fielded Brother Edmund Garvey to explain that they were undertaking a six-week review of how to help victims and invest in child and welfare for present and future generations.
On Newstalk yesterday the outspoken Augustinian monk Father Iggy O'Donovan predicted the death of the religious orders, which are failing to recruit new members, and admitted to Sean Moncrieff that his own order was "in freefall".
Fr Iggy also accused the bishops of double standards, in trying to increase the abuse tab for the orders: he reminded Dr Martin that his predecessor, John Charles McQuaid, did nothing to stop the abuse of children and could have driven every Christian Brother out of the Dublin archdiocese.
The legacy of Dr McQuaid will be paid for at a high price by Dr Martin when the commission of investigation publishes its report on the Dublin Archdiocese.
In effect, Fr Iggy was telling Dr Martin that the Irish Church would only survive if it stood united, rather than the bishops trying to pass the blame on to the religious.