Joan Smith: Ireland squares up to the Vatican

Last autumn, as Pope Benedict XVI celebrated an outdoor mass in Hyde Park, I joined a march through London to protest against his visit to the UK. It was boisterous and good-natured, but I was struck by the presence of a number of elderly women who seemed to be marching on their own.

When we started up conversations, I discovered why they had come; speaking quietly, and often with Irish accents, they revealed that as children or young adults they had been victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests.

The exposure of clerical abuse in the worldwide Catholic church has been going on for decades. Last week, another official report was published, exposing the church's failure to tell the authorities about allegations of sexual abuse in the Irish diocese of Cloyne, but the result was unexpected. Suddenly and without precedent, the Irish prime minister attacked the Vatican in terms that raised the prospect of his country one day becoming a secular republic. Speaking in the Irish parliament, Enda Kenny talked about "the rape and torture of children" and said the report exposed in Ireland "an attempt by the Holy See to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic".

This is jaw-dropping stuff: Ireland is one of the most Catholic countries in the world. The Irish church has long behaved as though it's immune from the criminal law, and that has exposed thousands of vulnerable people – not only children but the young women who were used as slave labour in church-run Magdalene laundries – to horrific abuse. The Cloyne report describes the Vatican as "entirely unhelpful" and says it effectively gave Irish bishops the freedom to ignore the church's own guidelines on reporting abuse. Abusers continued to officiate as priests and were held in high regard by victims' families; in one case, the abuser officiated at a victim's wedding.

It isn't only in Ireland that such accusations have been levelled at the church. A Catholic priest was arrested this month in Germany, where he's accused of sexually abusing three boys as recently as 2007, while the church in Australia is paying millions of pounds in compensation after failing to stop paedophile priests for decades. The Vatican has repeatedly failed to protect children, involving itself in a series of shameful cover-ups which have allowed paedophile priests to escape the law.

Last year's huge PR exercise during the Pope's visit to the UK was a reminder that two irreconcilable views of the pontiff exist side by side: the pious, white-haired, avuncular theologian versus the leader of an institution that continues to shield child-abusers and rapists. No wonder the events of the last few days have the appearance of a seismic shift, with Kenny echoing the Vatican's sternest secular critics as he talked about "the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism – the narcissism – that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day".

Ireland's political class has been left reeling after Kenny issued a direct challenge to the pontiff, warning him that "the standards of conduct which the church deems appropriate to itself cannot, and will not, be applied to the workings of democracy and civil society in this republic". Even in Catholic Ireland, it seems, the Vatican's behaviour has reached a tipping point. Let's hope that the result is a long-overdue debate about separation between Church and State.

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