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Cardinal's death could mark a turning-point for the Church

With the death of Cardinal Daly, Catholic bishops in Ireland escaped, in an instant, from collective disgrace.

Just a week ago, the prevailing sense in the country was that they were a cabal of bumbling fools who were all better swept away.

We were almost at the point where a decent person wouldn't want to be seen in the company of a prince of the church for fear of being tarnished by association.

And they were falling like ninepins from office in the blast of derision directed against anyone that bore a nominal share of collective responsibility for the mismanagement of complaints against paedophile priests.

Indeed, it is still likely that most of the current bishops will go, as the church reforms its structures here to adapt to the shrinking talent-base available and spins it as a crackdown on collusion and cover-up.

For it isn't sex-abuse that has crippled the church in Ireland; the tumble in the regard in which it is held began long before the first great sex-scandal in the 1990s.

It seems a long time now since the great investigative journalist Chris Moore explored the scandal that the loathsome Brendan Smyth, who used to visit little girls at school to grope them, had been shunted around the world by his own order to spare him the danger of arrest.

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There was a bishop in that story. It was Bishop Cahal Daly of the Diocese of Down and Conor.

His defence against the charge that he had failed the victims of the ghastly Smyth was that he had had no authority over him.

It was news to most Catholics at the time that a bishop couldn't sack a priest - that the term hierarchy did not imply line-management and power.

On Sunday Sequence at the weekend, William Crawley raised with Irish Times religious affairs correspondent, Patsy McGarry, the question of whether Cahal Daly had mismanaged abuse cases under his watch.

McGarry said that there were suspicions that he had, including a doubt about whether he had reported Smyth to the police.

His response, said McGarry, had fitted in with the culture of the times. He had done what any other bishop would have done.

Of course, some of those bishops are now resigning for having followed the code of their church in the face of complaints of abuse.

But the bishops now have a hero.

Cahal Daly was a humble and brave and decent man who is entitled to stand in memory as a reminder of the strength of the church. There were times when he was in office when it was good that an alternative voice of authority to the state or political parties could be heard.

On the day of his ceremonial ordination as Cardinal, he stood before the Secretary of State, Peter Brooke, and the President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, and stated plainly that the Birmingham Six should be released.

What other institution could have commanded the silence and attention of a Government minister on such an issue?

Daly was vituperous in his attacks on the IRA and they hated him for it. Of course, it would have been strange had he not been.

But other bishops had wheedled and equivocated. He stood out, not because he was heroic and clear in his condemnations of violence, but because others around him were not. It is hardly a great challenge to someone who professes to be the emissary of Christ that he should speak plainly about the sinfulness of murder.

But this was a time in which it was difficult for ordinary Catholic people to voice their criticisms of the IRA and the natural inheritors of that role were the churches.

Whatever the IRA thought of Daly, they were not going to shoot him, so he had a freedom to speak out that others did not have.

Later, in October 2001, Cardinal Daly landed the embarrassing task of officiating at the state funeral for Kevin Barry and other IRA men.

He said there, "We do not forget that young men died also on the British side; and we commend their souls to God also."

He recalled the pithy remarks of his predecessor Cardinal Conway: "Who, in their sober senses, would want to bomb a million Protestants into a United Ireland."

And he claimed boldly that nationalists no longer want a united Ireland which absorbs unionists against their will, a notion that poor Kevin Barry would probably have found incomprehensible.

But for all that Cahal Daly was remarkable - and he was - there would still have been a lying in state and the many token words of praise for him had he been merely a dullard like so many of his colleagues.

The routines by which a cardinal is honoured in this country are well-established.

There was something unseemly about the baiting of Peter Robinson to make a statement at a time when it was clear from the news about his wife Iris's illness that he had enough on his plate.

Perhaps that, too, was motivated by an urge to restore the standing of the church at its most vulnerable moment.

The men in purple ermine who lined the front pew in St Peter's may have felt for a moment that their offices and their persons are still held in high esteem in Ireland.

There are cynical men among them. Some may have felt that Cahal Daly could not have picked a better moment to die.

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