In my first few days as editor of The Universe, the leading English-language Catholic newspaper, I had a long conversation with the monsignor who was a member of the board, an adviser to the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, and who wrote a religious “Agony Aunt” column for us.

Sample Question: I am no longer a virgin; is it permissible for me to get married in church in a white dress? Answer: Your marriage marks the beginning of your new life with God’s blessing; you should happily wear a white dress to mark the purity of your new life.

But for all his generally liberal views, the monsignor was adamant on one thing: one sin that cried to heaven for vengeance was sexual abuse against children — because it was abuse of innocence and purity. This was way back in 1987.

Given the clear teaching of the Catholic Church, I am puzzled, shocked and horrified that the scandal, sin and crime of sexual abuse of children by clerics of the Catholic Church continues to harm the church, and that Pope Benedict XVI seems unable to grasp the damage. It is now beginning to raise embarrassing questions about the pope’s management of the church.

Perhaps Enda Kenny, the Taoiseach or prime minister of Ireland, still one of the most faithful Catholic countries in the world, may help bring the pope to his senses.

Kenny used his high office and the Dail (parliament) to deliver a withering damnation of the church authorities, declaring “the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism, the narcissism that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day.

He was reacting to revelations last month that, in the diocese of Cloyne, 19 priests abused children between 1996 and February 2009 and that the local bishop covered up and lied about the abuse by falsely claiming that he had reported all abuse allegations when the diocese failed to report all abuse allegations to the police and reported none to the health authorities.

The 400-page Cloyne report claimed that the attitude of the Vatican had been “entirely unhelpful” in describing guidelines on how to deal with abuse claims as “merely a study document.”

Allegations of abuse in Cloyne hit close to home for the Vatican because the bishop, until he resigned last year, was John Magee, who had previously been a secretary to three popes.

Kenny claimed that the report exposed, “an attempt by the Holy See to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic as little as three years ago, not three decades ago … The rape and torture of children were downplayed or ‘managed’ to uphold instead the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and reputation.

“Far from listening to the evidence of humiliation and betrayal with St Benedict’s ‘ear of the heart,’ the Vatican’s reaction was to parse it and analyze it with the gimlet eye of a canon lawyer. This calculated, withering position being the polar opposite of the radicalism, humility and compassion upon which the Roman Church was founded.”

“Phew” was the single comment of a long-term faithful Catholic who heard the Taoiseach’s speech. But he added: “About time. The Vatican has to be careful or it will alienate the very people who are its most faithful followers.”

What gave Kenny extra force was that he is not some way-out or anticlerical radical leader of a secular state but rather a faithful practicing Catholic in one of the most Catholic countries of the world where the local priest is mostly the leader and mentor of the community and the bishop exercises great political as well as religious authority.

In Ireland and other countries the abusers were left untouched or at best shuffled from place to place. As Kenny noted, the abusing priests continued to be pillars of the community, and one even officiated at the marriage of one of his victims.

Some apologists for the Vatican claim that the pope was not involved, and that Benedict has gone out of his way to meet, apologize to and ask for forgiveness from people abused by priests on his visits to the United States, United Kingdom and other countries.

The latter part is true, which makes it the more extraordinary that the pope has not grasped the enormity of the issue.

As the leader of more than 1.3 billion Catholics throughout the world, the pope is responsible for the management of the whole church and cannot hide or escape responsibility by pretending that there are few local difficulties, and certainly not on a question as heinous as this.

The close relationship between Bishop Magee and three former popes should have sent alarm bells running all over the Vatican.

In addition, the pope has let down the one indisputably honorable Irish bishop. Diarmuid Martin, the Archbishop of Dublin since 2004, said in a sermon after Cloyne that his first emotion was “anger” that abuse of children had happened and that it had happened after the bishops had agreed and adopted guidelines to stop it.

He was almost in tears when he told interviewers: “I find myself asking today, can I be proud of the church that I’m a leader of? I have to be ashamed of this.”

I knew Martin slightly when he was in Rome at the Justice and Peace Commission. He lacks the easy charm that is the hallmark of many Irish people, but is a straight arrow, who will tell you what he honestly thinks, however awkward it may be. He upset his predecessor Cardinal Desmond Martin by providing state investigators in Dublin with the Dublin archdiocese’s secret files on child abuse complaints. A lawsuit was launched to keep the files under lock and key and other dioceses were urged to do the same.

Asked whether he could count on his fellow Irish bishops to protect children from abuse from now on, Martin replied with a lukewarm, “I hope so.”

Martin wanted the resignation of two auxiliary bishops in Dublin; the Vatican refused to accept their resignations. Martin wanted Magee to resign months before he did, but was resisted by his fellow bishops.

The pope had a chance — twice — to show his faith in Martin by making him a cardinal, but he did not do so.

That is why Taoiseach Kenny is right to address the awkward questions to Pope Benedict.

If the Roman Catholic Church cannot protect the youngest, weakest and innocent of its members from abuse at the hands of its clerics while the abusers themselves are protected by its prelates, what hope or faith can anyone have in the church or believe any of its claims to truth or goodness?

Kevin Rafferty is a former editor of The Universe, the leading Catholic newspaper.

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