GIVEN the scale of what is happening in the Irish Catholic Church, debating the departure of five auxiliary bishops has all the rich, ripe irrelevance to the gravity of the situation as had Taoiseach Brian Cowen's axing of five junior ministers.
The only meaningful departure would be that of the Pope himself. As Cardinal Ratzinger he was probably the best informed man in the Vatican, being both Prefect of the powerful Congregation of the Faith and Dean of the College of Cardinals. These offices mean that he was privy to the ever swelling tide of reports on clerical sex abuse which poured into the Vatican during his tenure in office, from every diocese in the world.
Even non-Catholics are free to access the vast accounts of clerical abuse, available on the web, like a vast open sewer. But apparently the Pontiff has no intention of resigning. Instead, he intends to send us a letter. Presumably it will be prepared by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, as were Pope John Paul II's Irish speeches prepared by the then Bishop Daly.
If that letter is ever sent, it will be the most unpopular and ineffective Papal missive to arrive in Ireland since the Papal Rescript of 1888 which the British-inspired Pope Leo XIII issued condemning the Plan of Campaign
Instead of arguments over whether or not a handful of bishops should be hung out to dry, the Irish public should be concentrating on how they, the people -- who in the end pick up the tab for all that is happening in both Church and State -- could develop a mechanism whereby the laity would henceforth have a say in the selection of bishops.
I would strongly urge our Government to tell Rome that, henceforth, a small but experienced lay panel be appointed to vet any shortlist prepared to fill Episcopal vacancies. Ideally the panel should include a mother, preferably with some knowledge of psychiatry.
Second -- as a direct response to the arrogance and tardiness of the Nuncio in dealing with the Murphy inquiry -- that we close down our embassy to the Holy See and henceforth deal with the Vatican through our embassy in Rome.
These are not matters of faith. The question of clerical sex abuse has serious financial, educational and emotional implications for an Irish society struggling to find a new economic and psychological identity for itself.
The money from the sale of the beautiful, but costly, Vatican embassy could go to restoring the budget cuts in facilities available to blind persons for example.
Let us consider the present situation. Bishops are appointed to dioceses whose inhabitants are expected to shoulder 100 per cent of their lordships' upkeep, and that of their retinue. They are also expected to give 100 per cent obedience to their lordships' pronouncements, but not even one per cent of input in their selection.
While from time to time the Vatican may have a particular candidate of its own for a vacant See, it is normally the Papal Nuncio who has the major say in the appointment of bishops. He tells Rome which of the shortlisted replacements for any vacant See is likely to be the most reliable in implementing the Vatican's policies. His view totally outweighs the wishes of the priests of the diocese. As for those of the laity? Forget it.
Cardinal Desmond Connell, who played an inglorious role at the helm in Drumcondra while the gathering storm that led to the Murphy reports was building up, was appointed not least because he was a friend of the then Cardinal Ratzinger, not because of any reputation for his knowledge and involvement with the lives of the plain people of Dublin.
Similarly, the appointment of John Magee as Bishop of Cloyne -- a post from which he has had to step aside -- clearly owed more to his years as a papal secretary than to his services in Ireland.
We don't know what the ongoing examination of the affairs of the diocese of Cloyne is going to throw up, but, to put it mildly, there is little evidence that the Cloyne report is going to make better reading than the Murphy report.
The plain fact is that the present crisis has arisen because bishops, appointed solely by Rome, were formed and operated in a culture in which the Vatican policy was Pass the Parcel.
Under infectious diseases legislation there are severe penalties for failing to report certain serious illnesses to the authorities. But under the Pass the Parcel policy, what most of us would call an appalling disease -- that of paedophilia -- was covered up and the infectious one deliberately sent off to another parish to abuse trust and children in a manner which had, and has, life-long consequences.
The difference between this awful mental disease and that of a physical affliction like Aids, is that people involved in the implementation of the Pass the Parcel policy got up in pulpits and, with monumental hypocrisy, in their self- appointed role as moral arbiters, instructed people as to how they should lead their lives. Spouting rubbish such as contraception being wrong even in marriage. That sex should be employed only for the procreation of children.
Condoms make the Aids crisis worse, says the present Pope and, to give but one example, the courageous Fr Kevin Hegarty suffered at the hands of the Pope's loyal Irish bishops for daring to say otherwise. Father Gerry McGinty was the senior dean at Maynooth when students came to him voicing their concerns about sexual abuse in the college. But he was speedily transferred to an obscure parish in Louth when he raised the issue with the Church authorities.
The Church's strange, foetid attitude towards sex came about for two reasons. One, a view that if married priests had sex it meant that he approached the altar with "soiled hands". Second, but more importantly, to save money -- as priests' dependents could have a claim on Church property.
In Ireland, clerical preoccupation with sex and contraception veered from the ludicrous to the horrible. On behalf of the hierarchy, Archbishop McQuaid once informed the government that tampons should be banned because they might stimulate young girls to sexual activity and thus lead to contraception.
Later, in collusion with the Master of the National Maternity Hospital, Dr Alex Spain, McQuaid, to help combat contraception, oversaw the spread of the symphysiotomy operation to hospitals throughout the country.
This mutilating form of Dark Ages' midwifery, which involved sawing through the pelvis so that it remained permanently open, left women in life-long pain and remained in use until the Seventies.
Many of the Irish bishops now in the eye of the storm would have received their clerical formation at a time when the shadow of McQuaid and Spain still lay across medical ethics in Ireland. Meanwhile in Rome, in the same era, Vatican thinking was heavily influenced by a document produced by the powerful Cardinal Otaviani which stated that to make public any reference to clerical sex abuse was a grave sin meriting expulsion from the Church.
In the circumstances, now that worldwide public opinion has forced Rome to change its line, it is not surprising that some bishops are receiving a belt of the crozier, unfair though this may well be in some cases.
The truth is that the Church's de facto policy on abuse has until recently been a combination of denial, obfuscation, delay and a grudging admission of as little liability as possible -- vide the compensation deal which it first foisted on the Irish tax-payer through its negotiations with Dr Michael Woods. That package included payments for specialist, Church-provided counselling services for abuse victims. So, having been responsible for buggering young people, the Church then proceeded to charge for rehabilitating them.
And so, as it became patently obvious that this policy was becoming counter-productive, McQuaid and Otaviani were said goodbye to. New guidelines were drawn up. Diarmuid Martin was ordered to Dublin whether he liked it or not. In many ways his arrival reminded me of that of Paul Cullen in the mid-19th Century. Cullen's mission was to assert Rome's ultramontanist view on the Irish Church. He was an extraordinarily able, ruthless man -- an architect of papal infallibility who might well have become Pope himself had he not been sent to Ireland.
He succeeded brilliantly, getting control of the Irish educational system and establishing a devout, mindless type of Catholic obedience which provided an endless supply of nuns and priests and began to be seriously challenged only with the coming of free secondary education and of TV.
Martin is a skilled Vatican diplomat -- just as intelligent, just as determined in doing Rome's bidding, and, as a number of his rather bruised Episcopal colleagues will tell you, just as ruthless as Cullen in pursuing a policy of cleaning up his Church's mistakes.
Insofar as internal Church working and the eradication of clerical sex abuse is concerned, I wish him well. The evil the abusers did lives after them; the good done by a myriad of Irish nuns and priests obscured by their crimes. But insofar as I, citizen of a democratic Irish Republic, am concerned, the era of telling a brainwashed people "do as we say, not as we do" is long dead.
Its mortuary card bears a picture of Eamonn Casey and Mick Cleary prancing around the stage in Galway in 1979 as they warmed up the crowd for the Pope to deliver his famous line: "Young people of Ireland, I love you."
Henceforth, the truth of that statement will have to be demonstrated. If bishops are to be accorded a place of authority in Irish society, then Irish society must demand the right to check on their credentials before they are given that authority.