UNTIL yesterday, open confrontation between the Catholic bishops and the religious orders was unthinkable in this country. But yesterday, under the pressure of the worst scandal in the history of the Irish Catholic Church and the decline in the authority of all institutions, the unthinkable became the unavoidable.
The 18 congregations that signed the 2002 agreement with the Government on redress for victims of institutional child abuse met to consider the demands that the terms of the deal should be revisited. The two leading Churchmen in the country, Cardinal Sean Brady and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, had made precisely that demand and Archbishop Martin had made searing criticisms of their own actions.
After the meeting, they issued a statement of only 91 words. It accepted that they had "seriously failed" vulnerable children. It referred to finding ways of helping them. And it opposed reopening the terms of the agreement. This defiant statement was issued while the bishops were meeting in Maynooth. It placed them in a difficulty. They have no direct authority over the congregations. Yet the public perception is that they are one and the same.
Moreover, even in the event of revision of the agreement a problem would remain. Property owned by the orders has been transferred to trusts or handed over to public ownership under the terms of the deal. And they are thought to be short of cash.
Archbishop Martin says that if necessary the congregations should "beggar" themselves. He also questions the deal itself, under which their liability was capped at €127m while the Government will have to pay an estimated €1.2bn. He points out that after seven years the orders have not even completed the transfer of money and property which they undertook in 2002.
Cardinal Brady for his part thinks of appealing to Pope Benedict. If that happens, it will cast even more doubt on Ireland's ability to run its own affairs.
The issues here are, in the first place, the guilt of both Church and State in presiding over appalling abuses; secondly, the flawed agreement on redress for victims. They have given rise to the deepest public anxiety and anger. Clearly the bishops are more sensitive to the public mood than the orders -- or our supine Government. The latter has confined itself to a feeble plea to the orders to make a voluntary contribution. When ministers meet today, they too will have to do the unthinkable and grasp a moral issue.