IMAGINE a worldwide health epidemic has erupted with the lethal force of a deadly plague. Panic takes hold when the medical profession is implicated through a series of malpractices, with drip-fed but damning evidence found to have been covered up for decades by the central office of the Chief Global Surgeon.
Rather than acceding to the reasonable demands of victims for full disclosure of all medical records and the naming and shaming of guilty medics, the Chief Global Surgeon launches an internal inquiry in which he nominates senior figures from a discredited profession to investigate a malignant basket case in a small European island nation.
Meanwhile, disillusioned patients are counselled to remain passive about the scale of the scandal, put their trust in this secretive process, and wait patiently for the licensed quacks to prescribe the cure for a disease which has eroded public confidence in the existing system.
The European basket case is the Irish Catholic Church. For Chief Global Surgeon, read Supreme Pastor. For central office read the Roman Curia. For surgeons read bishops. For dodgy medics, paedophile clerics. For victims, abused children. For scandalised patients, good priests and the Catholic faithful.
This analogy is directly applicable to the unprecedented credibility crisis embroiling Pope Benedict XVI, who, as the Vicar of Christ, finds himself repeatedly apologising for paedophile clerics who have raped innocent children -- and for bishops who have concealed the crimes. This week the four leaders of the Catholic Church in Ireland have been summoned to Rome by the Vatican Congregation of Bishops. Cardinal Sean Brady and Archbishops Diarmuid Martin, Dermot Clifford and Michael Neary are to be assisted in cleansing a corroded green basket by a delegation of nine foreign churchmen handpicked by the Pope.
Behind the closed Vatican portals Roman officials and "apostolic visitors" will "offer assistance" to the Irish "as they seek to respond adequately to the situation caused by the tragic cases of abuse perpetrated by priests and religious upon minors".
The sparse wording clearly implies that Rome is not yet satisfied that the Irish bishops have adequately repaired the basket. Overseeing them in its remaking to Roman specifications will be two cardinals, three archbishops, two male religious and two nuns.
So the Irish visitation bears all the hallmarks of being a Roman affair with the imprint of pontifical secrecy. Pope Benedict's declared wider objective is that the probe "is also intended to contribute to the desired spiritual and moral renewal that is already being vigorously pursued by the Church in Ireland".
Claims of "vigorous reform" surely will surprise clergy, especially the recently formed pro-reform Association of Irish Priests, and a laity which, so far, is not being listened to or consulted for its views by the Bishops Conference, which in the privacy of Maynooth last March, pledged full co-operation with the delegates appointed by Rome.
Almost a half-century since the Second Vatican Council, there has been a recent rush to set up parish and diocesan councils involving the laity, but under episcopal and clerical control.
There is no similar rush to convene diocesan synods, at which issues favoured by the majority of the laity will be openly debated -- a repeal of the 1968 birth control ban, the updating of the Church's outdated code of sexual ethics, including the ordination of married men and the admission of women to the ministry.
Such a synod in Dublin has been ruled out by Archbishop Martin as being a talking shop, as if the democratisation and decentralisation of the Irish Church from Rome's over-centralisation would not be a wholesome development, implementing the council's calls for collegial decision-making in a people's church.
The ultra-loyal collaboration of the four Irish church leaders with the apostolic visitation is a sad sign that they are more intent on being Roman courtiers than leaders of their Church in Ireland.
Veteran commentator TP O'Mahony hits the nail on the head in his new book, 'Why the Catholic Church needs Vatican III', when he writes that the Irish visitation "is just Rome-speak for a group of enforcers who, with the Pope's full approval, will camp out here and seek to reinforce the Vatican's system of centralised control".
Whatever is thrashed out at this week's Rome meeting will reinforce universal suspicion of the Vatican for the secrecy and lack of transparency with which it deals with difficult controversial issues.
Will we get an explanation, for example, as to why two Irish bishops, Eamonn Walsh and Raymond Field, who resigned after being named in the Murphy report into clerical sexual abuse, had their resignations rejected by the Vatican? Or hear any apology for the Vatican's past failure to communicate with the Murphy investigation?
Irish priests and Catholics deserve explanations for decisions which further wounded and alienated victims such as Andrew Madden, Marie Collins, Michael O'Brien and Christine Buckley.
Will the four Irish churchmen have the moral courage to say to Rome: "Physician, heal thyself."