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Abused left to deal with awful burden of silence

For decades - at least - the Catholic Church was unable to find a response to child abuse by priests that didn't make it worse.

Bishop Hegarty of Derry, we now know, paid children money for their silence about abuse because the priority of the church was the avoidance of scandal.

He apologised to five of them on Tuesday. The father of one of the children says that he did not go to the police because that was not the culture in Derry at the time. It was not his culture that made the difference, however, but the culture of the church.

Derry bishops had working relationships with the RUC throughout the Troubles.

Whether in Catholic Derry, or in any other part of Ireland - and perhaps of the world - the church response would have been the same; to protect an abusing priest and to impose the horrific burden of silence on a child.

And, given that this was the standard operating procedure in the face of complaints from raped children, it is inconceivable that Hegarty and Brady are the only people in senior positions in the church today who are guilty of that kind of collusion. And it appears that churchmen cannot address the question of whether they were right to conspire against children and the state without criticising their own seniors in Rome. They feel they did nothing wrong because they adhered to their oath of obedience.

By shifting men who raped children around the world, instead of handing them over to the police, these men prolonged the abusing careers of the worst paedophiles and sent them to fresh pastures where they could access more children. Now they find themselves unable to fight for their self-respect and dignity without continuing to justify what they did.

So Cardinal Sean Brady, having officiated at a tribunal for exacting a promise of secrecy from abused children, feels he can rebut demands for his resignation by reminding us how saintly he is and by comparing himself to St Patrick. It is hard to see any of the qualities in this man that would make him a leader in any other profession.

The depletion of the church has left incompetents in charge, and where bishops were chosen from among pliant flunkies, the talent pool was even smaller. And that would be fine if we could dismiss our leading national Christian as an intransigent and impervious buffoon, but we require him now to lead the Catholic Church away from its culture of institutionalised abuse and to serve children decently in the future. And he still doesn't seem to grasp the possibility that his own qualifications for that job now look scant.

He wants to reflect on whether a "wounded healer" might have more to offer than, say, a conscientious, well-trained professional. It's a bit like supposing that a former kneecapper would make a good chief constable. Brady has said he will now take the rest of Lent to dwell on his position and that he will "listen to people who go to Mass".

But even among conscientious practising Catholics, he will find embarrassment. Too many in the church are now reacting as if their main problem is the media and atheists with agendas to pursue.

Sean Brady was clearly heartened on Wednesday by the members of his congregation who applauded his apology, but he would be foolish to take those who form his congregation as representative of the wider church.

Many serious Catholics are disheartened and are falling away. Some are now making silent protests by withholding donations to collections for Bishops and Rome.

More and more the average Catholic sees the church as represented by a local busy and popular priest and regards the hierarchy as a smug irrelevance.

What remains, after decades of scandal, is the conviction of senior churchmen that they are answerable only to their church and the stinking suspicion that the church puts itself above children.

Well, that may make sense to a Cardinal. He sees himself, after all, as doing God's work, appointed to that work by a Pope who has been personally selected for office by the Holy Spirit. It was striking that Cardinal Brady said on Sunday that he thought that stripping the loathsome Brendan Smyth of the powers to hear confessions had been an effective and serious restraint on him.

Better still would have been calling the police and having him locked up so that he might never bounce an innocent child on his knee again and so that the children he had abused might be offered counselling and support through statutory services.

It is not enough now - even in the eyes of devout Catholics - to draw your rationale on how to deal with abuse just from theology. This is one of the biggest changes in Catholic Ireland, that even the religious understand that religious answers are not enough.

But the biggest problem for the church now is that collusion has come into focus.

A single question confronts all clergy now: did you know that a child had been abused and fail to tell the police?

Calls to prayer and renewal and a tradition of reverence for holy men will not cut it any more. The question has to be answered.

And since the entire church strategy was to silence the children, the horror before us is that very few in the Catholic church today can say they did the right thing.