Bruce Anderson: Only a different leadership can save the Irish church

Out of weakness its bishops condoned both terrorists and sexual terrorists

There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Pope Benedict's feelings. His letter was powerful, reading as if it had been written from the heart. So it should have been. Nothing less would suffice. The word "abuse" does not begin to describe the miseries which some of those Irish children endured.

Go back 50 years to rural Ireland. The past is another country? More like another world. The pace of life is as gentle as the regular showers of light rain, as unhurried as the immaculate pouring of a glass of Guinness – and everything seems as harmonious as that pint when it finally arrives. True, there is not much sign of energy. It is some years since the last person with any get-up-and-go got up and went. But there is always good craic to be had, sometimes on serious subjects. The tourist would be reminded that twelve hundred years ago, when Western Christianity was struggling to survive, some of the most successful struggles took place in the West of Ireland, where the monasteries were among the few points of light in the Dark Ages.

The Irish reserve an especial eloquence for their long history of suffering. The talk might then move forward a thousand years, to the second dark age for Irish Catholicism: nearly three centuries of persecution by the English and the Protestants, during which the Church had a crucial role in preserving Irish national identity, "crucial" being the appropriate word. Priests and bishops did bear the cross of martyrdom. It might be that the parish priest himself would be there to make that point, greeted warmly but respectfully, like the CO of a regiment arriving in the mess: the natural leader of the community. By now, the visitor might have concluded that Irish Catholicism was an heroic faith and that the whole of rural Ireland was Yeats' Innisfree, an emerald of prelapsarian innocence.

But there was another aspect, which no tourist would encounter. Imagine that you are a little Irish boy in an orphanage. You are probably there because your mother followed Holy Church's teachings on contraception but not on fornication. "In sin hath my mother conceived me". The Irish orphan would have felt the full weight of that sin as the humiliation of his bastardy was ground into him. There is a brutal irony. The orphanage would have been run by priests, monks and nuns – all of them in the service of a loving Redeemer. "Suffer the little children to come unto me". Those little Irish children would have learned all about suffering.

Orphanhood is not an easy destiny. It must be hard for even the best-run institution – the very word helps explain the problem – to replace the affection and cuddles and love which a mother would provide: the foundations of a happy personality. That brings us to the acme of cruelty. A lot of those children did receive a grotesque parody of affection and a perversion of love, in the form of sexual abuse. Imagine the feelings of such a child. He has often been told that he is a despicable wretch, only fit to be half-starved and flogged. Now there is violation, at the hands of those whom he has been taught to revere. An orphan child would entirely lack the intellectual and emotional resources to make sense of what was happening to him. It was evil, but priests are never evil. So his wickedness must be to blame. They are right. He is worthless.

Thus did children whimper themselves to sleep. Thus did a religion of love express itself in Catholic Ireland. Thus were lain the foundations of abused personalities. "Deliver us from evil". The gates of those orphanages should have borne a variant inscription: "Deliver us to evil". It is of course true that not all the victims were orphans. But any abused Irish child could be regarded as an honorary orphan, especially if he came from a poor family. To whom was he to complain? Who would believe him? To make up such terrible lies: it must be the devil talking. So it is easy to understand why a lot of children would have kept quiet, their feelings of uncleanness and their anger both festering down the decades.

Let us now switch the focus of our imaginative sympathy from the victims to the hierarchy. Why and how could this have happened? Until at least the Sixties, Ireland was virtually a theocracy. But this was not the gentle theocracy that our tourist encountered in the bar at Ballyguinness. The Irish Catholic Church was more like the Turkish army. It regarded itself as the custodian of the nation's values. Its senior figures tended to be authoritarian, intolerant, unimaginative and formidable. The classic example was John Charles McQuaid, Archbishop of Dublin for more than 30 years, who ran his archdiocese like an appanage. Prime Ministers went in awe of him. In those days, Ireland was a poor country. Life was often harsh. This did not seem to trouble the hierarchy unduly. Archbishop McQuaid never took much interest in Kiltartan's poor. His concern was with power, not love.

And certainly not with sex. By the Sixties, sexual repression was regarded with disfavour in advanced circles. Catholic Ireland was not an advanced circle. In it, repression was to sex what Guinness was to oysters: the ideal accompaniment. That said, there are now rumours that John Charles himself was guilty of abuse. If so, he was not only an old monster, but a hypocritical old monster. But it is hard to believe. He and similar figures in the Catholic hierarchy would have regarded any form of priestly sexual intercourse with horror, partly because it would be likely to create a scandal that would disturb the tranquil tenor of Irish theocracy (they were right).

So: a priest is denounced for sexual abuse. In the first instance, his seniors would have reacted as our honorary orphan feared that all the grown-ups would. They would not believe it. Then, if their incredulity were violated, their first reaction would be to shut everyone up. Give the priest a blasting. Make him swear by everything holy that this will never happen again, and move him out of the district. Call in the police? Unthinkable. Instead, make sure that everything is covered up and stays covered up.

In 1975, the current Primate of All Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady, acted in that spirit when he interviewed two victims of a paedophile priest, who is said to have abused 90 more children before his eventual arrest. As a result, the Cardinal's position is untenable. It is absurd that he has not already resigned. But this does not mean that he was evil: merely naive. As he found these crimes revolting, he could not believe that they were so widespread. Whatever training the Irish Catholic clergy received in the Sixties and Seventies, it did not encourage psychological sophistication.

Equally, episcopal weakness was not confined to sexual matters. The Irish hierarchy made no serious attempt to bring moral pressure on the IRA. Nothing was done to prevent priests from giving spiritual comfort to murderers. Cowardice is infectious. If the Irish bishops had been prepared to take a stand on terrorism, they might also have been tougher on child abuse. Lives would have been saved; other lives would not have been ruined. Out of weakness and naivete, the Irish Bishops condoned both terrorists and sexual terrorists. As a result, they have shattered their Church's prestige and authority. If at all, that could only be repaired under a different leadership. But it may be that the Irish Catholic Church is facing a third and terminal dark age.