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Why only the laity can rid us of the turbulent priests

Heads have started to roll in the Catholic church and the beginning of a reorganisation of the church is now being discussed and hinted at.

While some of the former auxiliary bishops in the archdiocese of Dublin implicated in the cover-up of child abuse have bowed to the inevitable and resigned, there was little sense that their own church was struggling to save them.

The Vatican wants change here and it wants to lead that change. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin forced the shamed men's hands by reminding them that they had a share in the collective responsibility of the diocesan bishops for the efforts to maintain secrecy about abuse.

That charge could probably be contested morally or in ordinary commonsense. Do we really expect that a junior auxiliary bishop at a round-table meeting might have contradicted an archbishop or cardinal and tried to call in the police? His entire training and instinct and his oath of obedience would have obliged him to take a lead from the authority figures over him.

This is not, however, a tenable excuse in the current climate. Change is coming and the more of the old guard that can be removed first, the better. (The Bishop of Galway, Martin Drennan, is now the sole prelate named in the Murphy report who has yet to offer his resignation.)

Archbishop Martin appears ready to assist in a radical overhaul of how the church is run. The resignations (including, to date, the Bishop of Limerick Donal Murray and the Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin Jim Moriarty) will make his task easier.

Another clue to the new mood in Rome is in the remarks made by the theologian Vincent Twomey. Father Twomey was one of the first to voice the opinion that many bishops should resign.

When pursued on Radio Ulster's Sunday Sequence by William Crawley about whether even Cardinal Brady himself should step down, Twomey equivocated when the normal thing, in normal times, would have been to defend the cardinal staunchly.

So no one in the old regime is safe now. And those who manage to cling to their jobs will do so in the understanding that it would have suited their masters better if they had gone.

Vincent Twomey is not a radical priest speaking for a revolutionary spirit in the Irish Catholic church. He is a chauvinist and devotee of papal authority. If he is calling for major change, he is doing so in the understanding that that is what the Vatican wants.

There will be a Vatican-directed effort to save the church here and to put it in the hands of people who will not run it like the old cabal of self-important, preening dunderheads.

But is that what the people of the church really want - and need? Would it not be better, some are asking, if a reform of the church was now led by the Irish Catholics themselves?

The Vatican, after all, was part of the problem, with its direction that details of abuses by priests should be forwarded to Rome and otherwise kept secret.

Clearly, the Vatican now understands that its moral authority in Ireland is in jeopardy and it is unfolding a plan to restore that authority. Can it succeed?

Well, it is hardly likely to reverse the decline of the church here by very much. There is no going back to the Ireland of the 1960s when most people went to Mass every week and ordinary parish churches had four or five priests serving them.

Melmount parish in Strabane is a large and busy urban Catholic parish and is an example of how the church functions now on depleted resources.

Following the reshuffle of priests in the Derry Diocese after Father Sean McKenna left a few weeks ago to pursue a relationship with a woman, Melmount has now only one priest. There is no way that that one priest could provide his flock with the services they once took for granted.

If the old tradition of weekly confession for most Catholic children was restored, he simply wouldn't be able to meet the demand. He couldn't delegate that work to eucharistic ministers or lay assistants.

In recent years, Cardinal Brady has proposed the merging of parishes into clusters in which the laity would provide support for the small number of priests by doing the administrative work.

Some such arrangement may be what the Vatican has in mind, shifting the burden of running the church from the hierarchy and the priests to the laity.

But are there enough people here who want to take on this work? And do they have a price?

Much of the best talent within the Catholic laity has left because it did not feel valued, or because people simply could not accept the church's emphasis on a theology of sexuality which condemned contraception and abortion, treated gays as 'disordered' and which revered chastity while covering up its own sexual sins.

Of those who remain, some are radicals who want a far more comprehensive change in the church than they imagine the current papacy could deliver. Those changes would include the ordination of women and the end of the celibacy law for priests.

Then there is a fluctuating, but often large, movement of a kind of sentimental conservative Catholic who is awestruck by reports of visions of the Virgin Mary, but is essentially concerned to reinforce the priesthood and the idea of a Catholic apostolic succession.

Sometimes, these people seem the most energetic part of the church, with their organised pilgrimages and their charismatic devotion, but they are not social radicals.

If the Vatican moves to shift the centre of the church to the laity, it may find that these different strands of Catholicism would compete with each other for influence or simply drift further apart from each other, fracturing the church further.

Some would prefer that, rather than be shaped by Rome, a new lay movement would emerge to claim the leadership of the church and usurp the bishops, demanding the right to at least appoint them.

But, instead, the people merely wait to see who will resign next and what Rome's prescription for reform will be. They have no prescription of their own.