Pope Benedict's pastoral letter to Irish Catholics, extracts from which were read out in churches across Ireland yesterday, is a landmark for the Vatican and for the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. It is the first time that the Vatican has given a statement of this kind on the issue of sexual abuse of children by priests, which the church had long been complicit in concealing. The Pope deserves credit for this and for acknowledging publicly the harm that has been done – not just the damage to the Church as an institution, but the profound hurt to very many individuals who were abused by adults in a special position of trust.
There will be those, understandably, for whom the Pope's apology is nowhere near enough. While his contrition was heartfelt and far-reaching, he offered no specific apology for the elaborate ways in which the Church had sought to cast a veil of silence over the fact, and the extent, of paedophilia within its ranks. He referred only to "serious mistakes" among bishops in the way they had responded to the allegations.
If not this Pope, then his successors, may have no option but to extend the apology to the cover-up – and to the attempts, which it is now clear were in vain, to keep any judicial process, if unavoidable, within the purview of canon law. They may even be forced into deeper introspection and to delve into such sensitive issues as the way the Church hierarchy is maintained, the doctrine of papal infallibility and – most pertinent to this scandal – the celibacy of priests.
But even at the level of apology the Pope has chosen, this pastoral letter may turn out to be the first of many he will have to write. While the scandal unfolded first in North America and in Ireland, complaints of child abuse perpetrated by Catholic clergy have subsequently multiplied in many European countries, including in the Pope's native Germany, in Australia and New Zealand, and in South America.
The delay reflects in part the shame among victims about admitting a violation that dare not speak its name, and the success of the church in keeping the allegations under wraps. As societies have become less reticent about discussing sexual mores in general and sexual crime in particular, so it has become harder for the Catholic church to impose a vow of silence. At the same time, the awe in which the church and individual priests have been held has eroded, less because of scandal as such, than because of the demystification that tends to accompany modernity.
Which poses a particular question about Ireland and its future. With Poland, Ireland is the only European country where the Roman Catholic Church remains a potent institutional force. Like Poland, Ireland has been defined into the 21st century by its Catholicism. And in both countries, the Church reinforced national identity – against atheistic communism in the case of Poland, against British Protestantism in the case of Ireland.
Until recently, the faithful of both countries showed a remarkable tolerance of clerical fallibility. Ignorance doubtless played a part, but so did the sanctity of confession; the Church preserved its mystery. As the sex abuse scandal continues to unfold and tolerance is stretched to breaking, it is surely not fanciful to ask whether Ireland will still define itself as a Roman Catholic country within a generation. Or will it have gone the way of France, Italy and Spain, where the church is just one, largely optional, aspect of national life?