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Child abuse worth just minutes of Pope's Time

The short few minutes it will take you to read this article is approximately the amount of time each Irish bishop had to speak directly to the Pope on the issue of clerical sex abuse at a meeting in the Vatican today.

In all, 24 Irish bishops travelled to Rome for what was being billed as an open and frank exchange of views aimed at restoring confidence in the Church following the publication of the damning Murphy Report.

Apparently the bishops were told they could talk freely, but their time for speaking directly to the Pope on their experiences, and to try to account for what happened, was restricted to just seven minutes each.

Yes, just seven minutes.

And yet this special two-day summit of Irish bishops is being described as a first major step towards repairing the very deep wounds left by the revelations highlighted in the Murphy report. On foot of the summit, we are being told to expect a pastoral letter from the Pope before Easter.

And what happens then? Will the matter be disposed of as far as the Church is concerned and will we all be expected to move on?

There are a few bizarre aspects in relation to today's meeting.

First is the extraordinary omission from the summit of any victims of clerical sex abuse.

Who, after all, are better placed to speak of the impact and the damage inflicted by priests than those who suffered at the hands of men of the cloth?

Who would be better placed to get across to Pope Benedict the hurt inflicted at the failure of the authorities in the Dublin archdiocese to act when they became aware of some of the evil deeds carried out by priests?

Strangely, two bishops who were in the Dublin archdiocese in the period covered by the Murphy Report, and who were named in the document, have travelled.

Bishop Joseph Moriarty, who has also offered to resign but whose resignation has not yet been accepted, and Bishop Martin Drennan, who has not resigned despite coming under huge pressure to do so.

Because the meeting was held behind closed doors, we will be relying on the bishops themselves, or their spokespeople, to let us know the contents of the discussion.

The victims of clerical sex abuse have waited years, and in some cases decades, for the Church to be made accountable for the enormous damage done to them.

The Murphy Report was seen as a first step towards achieving that accountability

But if the Church isn't seen to be taking decisive action as a result of the report, it has all been in vain.

What victims and very disillusioned church-goers want are assurances and actions from the Church at the highest level that real change on the ground is on the way.

What they don't want is a big PR set-piece in the Vatican that is meaningless.

And in order for change to be introduced the Church needs to take soundings from ordinary priests, the laity, and victims of sex abuse as well as from bishops.

Wouldn't Pope Benedict have sent out a signal of real intent on the part of the Church if he had undertaken to travel to Ireland himself to take soundings and to hear at first hand from victims the pain and betrayal they feel at the Church's inaction on the issue of clerical abuse.

In Rome yesterday Bishop Joseph Duffy, the chairman of the Communications Commission of the Irish Bishops Conference, said the meetings would be a complete flop if seen as a formality or a glossing over of difficult points. I agree.

The next few months will tell if today is nothing but a cosmetic exercise.