The revelation that the Catholic priest against whom the allegations of child sexual abuse contained in the supplementary report of the Murphy Commission was none other than John Charles McQuaid, Archbishop of Dublin from 1940 to 1972, ratchets up the crisis facing the Catholic Church to a new level of seriousness.
Archbishop McQuaid, who dominated all aspects of Irish life for a third of a century, was probably the most influential prelate of post-independence Ireland. Not alone did he help Eamon de Valera draft the 1937 Constitution, his opposition to the Mother and Child Scheme was the major reason for the collapse of the 1948-51 Interparty Government.
Successive governments, regardless of their composition, paid homage to Archbishop McQuaid, who exercised an effective veto over large swathes of social, health and education policy. Woe betide the government minister who failed to consult with Archbishop McQuaid, as Noel Browne, the Minister for Health who attempted to introduce the Mother and Child Scheme found out to his cost.
Ever since the cancer of child abuse afflicting the Catholic Church began to emerge in the early 1990s, the line from church spokesmen and apologists has always been that abusers represented only a tiny proportion of priests, no more than a few rotten apples, and were in no way representative of the clergy as a whole.
The accusations against Archbishop McQuaid threaten to destroy the rotten apples defence. What if, instead of bishops and archbishops merely knowingly moving abusive priests from parish to parish, some of those prelates were themselves abusers? If this does turn out to be the case then the implications for the Irish Catholic Church scarcely bear thinking about.
Of course it should be emphasised that what we are dealing with at the moment are still just accusations. While he may be dead for more than 38 years and the vision of a Catholic Ireland he championed has been utterly discredited, the late Archbishop McQuaid still deserves a fair hearing. It is only right that the truth or otherwise of the extremely serious accusations made against him be established before his reputation is destroyed.
This needs to happen as a matter of urgency. There already seems to have been considerable foot-dragging on this matter with the Murphy Commission suggesting knowledge of the allegations against Archbishop McQuaid had been deliberately withheld from it. Was this mere coincidence or evidence of something more sinister afoot?
Ireland's Catholics have been extremely badly served by their leaders who have utterly failed to provide leadership on the child sexual abuse scandal. From what we knew already it was clear that, as an institution, the Catholic Church has failed to comprehend the enormity of the wrong done by some of its clergy. If the allegations against Archbishop McQuaid prove to be correct then the problems facing the Catholic Church are even more serious than any of us could have imagined.