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Pope risks a tidal wave of abuse claims

If it wasn't so grave an issue, the spectacle of Ireland's most senior clergy dressed in their finery and lining up to defend themselves to the Pope might have all the comic ingredients of a headmaster giving a ticking off to his prefects.

But, back here, a great deal rides on the outcome of the two-day Vatican meeting, an extraordinarily rare conference called to consider the damage done to the Catholic Church by the country's paedophile priests.

They assaulted their young, innocent charges for decades, seemingly with impunity.

Last year, the Ryan and Murphy reports came to devastating conclusions about the role of religion in the life of the State.

The Ryan Report found that there was systemic sexual, physical and emotional abuse in Catholic-run residential institutes for children. The Murphy Report said that the hierarchy had deliberately covered up the crimes of abusive priests, protecting them from the law, in order to save the Church's reputation.

But the decline of the Church was already under way before the sexual abuse scandals began to emerge over a decade ago.

Mass attendances received a boost from the inflow of Polish workers during the Celtic Tiger but many have now returned home, leaving parishes wrestling with how to offer services in steadily emptying churches.

We remain a culturally Catholic country but the favourite nation of many a Pontiff is no longer as quick to stoop to kiss his ring.

Practising Catholics expect more from Pope Benedict XVI than mere expressions of regret in the pastoral letter, which he has promised after listening to his Irish bishops.

Until now the Vatican's stance has appeared to suggest that the scandals engulfing us are a domestic matter.


Last Sunday the Bishop of Clogher, Joseph Duffy, said that he did not expect the pastoral letter to be issued soon, such are the complexities. The bishop also made a revealing comment about the level of the Pope's own prior knowledge of the scandals.

He said that the Pope was "very well clued in. Even before he became Pope he had access to the documentation and knew exactly what was in the documentation. He wasn't living in a fool's paradise".

In a previous role as Cardinal Ratzinger the Pope was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which reviews abuse claims against clergy. For months there have been calls for the Vatican to open its archives to show its role in responding to sex abuse cases in Ireland.

When the Murphy Report was published it emerged that the Papal Nuncio in Ireland, Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza, had refused to co-operate with the tribunal, hiding behind diplomatic protocol and "sovereign immunity".

It has been suggested that the Vatican's failure to set out a global code of conduct on child protection may have much to do with its reluctance to acknowledge its authority over national Churches, with bishops and priests its agents in a legal sense.

This could lead to ruinously expensive claims for damages against the Pope by abuse victims around the world.