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Leading article: The Pope at bay

Monday 29 March 2010 00:00 BST

For Roman Catholics, Holy Week is the most important time of the year: a period of deep contemplation, when believers recall and in a sense re-enact the last days of Christ's life, from Palm Sunday to the crucifixion and resurrection. Traditionally this is also a time when millions of otherwise nominal Catholics return, if only briefly, to the Church's embrace.

But not this year, perhaps, with Easter overshadowed by fresh damaging revelations about the abuse of children entrusted to clerical care. This year, the likelihood is that many cradle Catholics will just stay away, and never return.

As concern with the Church's handling of child-abuse cases gives way to anger, and as demands grow for the Church to end its culture of secrecy, the Pope's Easter message is likely to be drowned out. Still sounding a defiant note, he is starting to resemble some ancien régime monarch, immured in his palace and dangerously out of touch with the world outside.

Some writers – Catholic writers, not members of the increasingly confident movement of militant atheists – liken this restive atmosphere within the Church to the mood on the eve of the Reformation, when disgust with the venality of the Renaissance popes resulted in large chunks of Catholic Europe denouncing their authority.

In some ways the challenge the Catholic Church faces today is more difficult to contain, because it is not geographically limited. The rash of child abuse claims from Italy, Spain and the Pope's own Germany give the lie to the theory that systematic abuse of children by clergy was a specifically Irish issue, product of a locally warped sexual culture. It is now clear this is a Catholic, not an Irish, issue and that only sweeping changes to the Church's centuries-old conceptions of male priestly authority can stem the rot.

With his reluctant concessions and unsatisfactory-sounding apologies, this pope is not the man to lead those changes. This is a pity. While some of the Church's pet themes are deservedly unpopular, on other matters such as social justice, developing world debt, consumerism and the treatment of asylum seekers, the Church has much good to say. But until it properly confronts its own ills, its voice will not be heard.

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