The inauguration of Pope Francis brought a refreshing air of optimism to a Catholic Church that lay moribund in recent decades.
Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI should, perhaps, be credited with remarkable prescience: his resignation now seems like a remarkable act of sacrifice by a selfless pope in the best interests of the Church.
And yet, there is something not quite right about this picture of Benedict.
His resignation was not just a break with papal tradition; it is at odds with everything that he practised. Benedict was remarkably unwilling to allow anyone to resign – even when that would have been for the good of the Church.
One could almost feel sorry for Cardinal Sean Brady in Armagh. Almost three years ago, when revelations in relation to preventing further children being abused were questioned, he asked to retire.
The fact that he remains in office is one of the reasons many Irish people have left the Catholic Church. And yet, though Brady has shown signs of ill-health, Benedict refused to let him resign. Indeed, since March 2010, when he accepted the resignation of Bishop John Magee of Cloyne, Benedict has refused to accept the resignation of any bishop, or cardinal, for covering up child sexual abuse.
In December 2009, a report on the Dublin diocese forced four bishops to tender their resignation. The pope initially accepted two of these resignations, but then waited until August 2010 before refusing to accept the other two.
Cardinal Brady asked for a co-adjutant bishop in May 2010, but this was not granted until January 2013. In 2012, two years after Bishop Walter Mixa of Augsburg resigned for financial improprieties and for hitting children, the pope appointed him to the council for health and pastoral care.
The most prominent bishops to resign for reasons other than ill-health, or age, were Bishop Morris in Australia, because of doctrinal disagreements, Bishop Guallo, for cavorting with a woman on a beach, and Cardinal Keith O'Brien, for inappropriate sexual behaviour with priests.
Meanwhile, bishops and cardinals accused of the cover-up of the sexual abuse of children remain in office. The case of Seamus Hegarty, Emeritus Bishop of Derry, shines a revealing light on Pope Benedict XVI's resignation. Bishop Hegarty announced, on November 7, 2011, that he was no longer able to fulfil the role of Diocesan Bishop due to "my medical condition". Pope Benedict XVI accepted his resignation on November 23, 2011. However, his condition could not have deteriorated so rapidly that he was unable to face the public to answer questions about his role in covering up the rapes of children by his subordinates.
In 1982, the then Fr Seamus Hegarty became Bishop of Raphoe, Co Donegal. In 1994, he moved to the neighbouring diocese of Derry. Hegarty's reputation will be forever tarnished by his role in the Fr Eugene Greene scandal. Greene was jailed for the rape of 26 boys. Throughout his career, Greene had been moved from Nigeria to Scotland to Cork and finally to his home county, Donegal. There, Bishop Hegarty and his predecessor shunted him from parish to parish each time new allegations arose. Hegarty maintained that he knew nothing about Greene's misdeeds until his arrest. But, in 1976, Greene had been sent to a centre for the rehabilitation of priests, ostensibly for alcoholism, but in reality for sexual misdeeds.
Hegarty, when pressed by a journalist, maintained: "Oh, that affair was handled very professionally..." This comment, it strikes me, was revealing: if, as he claimed, he knew nothing about Greene's tendencies until 1998, there was surely no affair to handle – professionally, or otherwise? In 1992, a priest in Derry was accused of sexually assaulting a teenager and was transferred to another parish by Bishop Daly. When a second allegation was made in 1999, Bishop Hegarty appointed the priest to a role counselling victims of abuse.
These details did not emerge until 2005, when it was revealed that a payment of £20,000 was made to one of the priest's victims. In March 2010, Hegarty was again criticised for covering up the rape of a girl by Fr John McCullagh.
Pressure grew to investigate events in Raphoe. The Dublin government claimed the Church should first be allowed to be complete its audit, with each bishop granted a veto over publication.
Publication was delayed until 2011, just after the resignation of Bishop Hegarty was accepted by Pope Benedict XVI. The report proved disappointing for anyone interested in truth, devoting just a few paragraphs to historical cases of abuse. Although it criticised bishops for past errors of judgment, it provided no details.
Hegarty issued a statement, acknowledging "deficits in the management of allegations historically, including during my time as bishop". The diocesan administrator of Derry, however, said that Hegarty would not be able to answer questions as a result of health concerns. Hegarty's illness was, however, not sufficiently serious to prevent him from appearing in public, expressing contrition, or providing details of his role. In his pastoral letter to the people of Ireland, Pope Benedict XVI wrote: "God's justice summons us to give an account of our actions and to conceal nothing." The continued silence of Bishop Hegarty flouts this call.
Recently, it has been claimed that Benedict helped protect a priest who abused more than 200 boys in a school for the deaf in Milwaukee. One victim stated: "The pope knew about this. He should be held accountable."
Now that Benedict is closeted in a cloister, the people of Donegal and Derry wonder, 'Did he do a Hegarty?' Only time will tell.