HONG KONG — As more than a billion Roman Catholics prepare to commemorate the most sacred mysteries of their faith culminating at Easter next Sunday, most eyes will be on the small elderly man in the Vatican palace to see whether he can steer the church through the turbulence tearing it apart.

Pope Benedict XVI has yet to show that he completely comprehends the peril that the church is in, battered by the sins of its own priests and by a world that increasingly believes the church is irrelevant if not evil.

Recently the pope offered an unprecedented groveling apology to the people of Ireland for the abuse of children at the hands of Catholic priests. He told victims and their families: “You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry. I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated.”

An old priest friend is uncompromising that abuse of children is the most heinous of crimes, “an expression of evil that cries to heaven for vengeance because it is a corruption of innocence.” Done by priests, who are supposedly men of God, it is a betrayal of their very calling. And yet the church tried to pretend and cover up the evil.

Initially, the church pretended that pedophile priests were not a church problem since they were individuals’ lapses into sin. When too many cases of abuse were uncovered in the United States, it morphed into an American problem of a selfish self-gratifying society, a view advanced by Pope John Paul II. There were Vatican complaints that the constant stories of pedophile priests were a plot to “get” the church.

But the crimes and the crisis would not — and will not — go away. When abuse was uncovered in Australia, the United Kingdom and in Ireland, the fallback excuse was that this was a problem of the English-speaking world. Now abuse of children by priests has been uncovered in France, the Netherlands, Poland, Austria, Germany, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Mexico — in the last case involving a priest who was a favorite of Pope John Paul II.

To be fair to the pope, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, albeit belatedly 40-50 years after allegations were first made, he launched a cleanup of what he called this “filth” in the church. He used his 2001 letter to bishops instructing them to forward claims of sexual abuse against priests to his congregation to follow a “zero tolerance” policy. In a majority of hundreds of cases, bishops were instructed to take immediate action against accused priests without a formal canonical trial.

When he became pope, he endorsed the “one strike and you’re out” policy for pedophile priests in the U.S. and he barred the Mexican favorite of John Paul II from public ministry and instructed him to live a life of prayer and penance. (That priest died shortly afterward.)

Ratzinger and Benedict have had to fight ingrained Vatican traditions of secrecy and the wish not to wash dirty linen in public. However, it is still not clear whether Benedict fully appreciates the extent of the problem; he certainly does not understand secular popular revulsion toward the Catholic Church.

American Benedictine nun Joan Chittister put her finger on the public pulse when she attacked the coverup policy, followed by bishop after bishop, of transferring priest offenders within the church rather than handing them over for legal accountability: “It was a practice that saved the reputation of the church at the expense of children. It traded innocence for image.”

Cardinal Sean Brady, the head of the Irish bishops, “a good man with a good heart and a good reputation” according to Joan Chittister, admitted that as a young priest in 1975, he exacted a vow of silence from two boys abused by a serial rapist priest. Brady has claimed “the Nuremberg defense” — that he was following orders to report only to his bishop. But is blind obedience in the face of evil a mark of holiness or as Chittister asserts, “a misuse of the human soul in the name of religious commitment”? Cardinal Brady remains archbishop of Armagh, even after the pope’s apology.

In Benedict’s Germany, the extent of child abuse is still being uncovered, but it includes priests accused in Munich when Ratzinger was archbishop there (1977-81). Closer to home, Benedict’s brother Georg was in charge of the renowned choir at Regensburg, where there have been allegations of “a sophisticated system of sadistic punishments in connection with sexual lust,” though no suggestions that Georg Ratzinger was involved.

Swiss theologian Hans Kung, who is almost a disloyal opposition within the church, has raised some of the implications about child abuse, asking whether “holy celibacy” is such a precious gift and suggesting that the Vatican should rethink the ban on married priests.

Married priests might not prove magic bullets for the church, but they might allow it to be more alive to the changing world in which it lives and works, and help it to get rid of some of its sexual hangups.

The central mystery of Easter is that Jesus Christ — God who became a human — suffered and died for humanity and raised himself from the dead to restore the friendship between God and mankind. Most of the world thinks this is an unbelievable fairy story. In Benedict’s Germany, the “Christian” heartland of Europe, churchgoers form 2 percent of the population in the east and just 8 percent in the west.

Hitherto, Benedict has lamented that the world is moving away from God. His inclination is to retreat into a holy ghetto where the old rituals and smells and bells and incantations and practices can be followed by the dwindling numbers of faithful. But the message of Easter is that this is not enough and is not faithful to the instruction of Christ to go and teach everyone everywhere, however uncomfortable it might be.

To be unfair to Benedict, Christ did not wear Prada shoes or live in a palace. Indeed, my Easter message to the pope would be from “Gitanjali” by Rabindranath Tagore:

“Leave this chanting and singing and telling of beads! Whom dost thou worship in this lonely dark corner of a temple with doors all shut? Open thine eyes and see thy God is not before thee! He is there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground and where the pathmaker is breaking stones. He is with them in sun and in shower, and his garment is covered with dust. Put off thy holy mantle and even like him come down on the dusty soil!

“Our master himself has joyfully taken upon him the bonds of creation; he is bound with us all for ever. Come out of thy meditations and leave aside thy flowers and incense! What harm is there if thy clothes become tattered and stained? Meet him and stand by him in toil and in sweat of thy brow. “

Kevin Rafferty was editor of The Universe, then the largest English-language Catholic newspaper in the world.

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