There was a time -- and it lasted many years -- when the crisis caused by clerical sex abuse happened outside the Vatican's walls. Even when it was no longer seen as just an Anglo-Saxon problem, it remained a bishops' problem, "a question for the local Church" as it was known in Rome. There was plenty of eye-rolling and shaking of heads and not a few rude words said about the media. But a noli me tangere cloud hung over the Eternal City. Under Pope John Paul II, a group of powerful cardinals -- among them Sodano and Castrillon-Hoyos -- ensured that it stayed that way. Denial ran deep. Hence the disasters named Groer and Maciel.
A lot has changed since 2005 -- not least the detonation of the crisis in central Europe, the Maciel revelations, and the Irish reports. The denial ceased some time ago. But it may only be this year that historians will later regard as the moment when the Vatican finally took lead on the issue, exercising firm leadership over the global Church. Ireland is the lynchpin. Following the devastating Murphy Report last year, the entire Irish episcopate was summoned to meet Pope Benedict in February. In Lent, Pope Benedict's long letter to the Irish people promised a Vatican-led investigation or "Visitation". Now, the senior churchmen who will lead that investigation, known as apostolic visitors, are in Rome planning the Visitation. They will report directly to the Pope.
The four Irish archdioceses are being placed under the Vatican spotlight. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the retired Archbishop of Westminster, will inspect Cardinal Brady's archdiocese of Armagh; Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston will inspect Dublin; Toronto's Archbishop Christopher Thomas Collins will investigate Cashel; Ottawa's Archbishop Terence Prendergast will look at the west of Ireland archdiocese of Tuam. An investigation of the state of Irish seminaries will be conducted by Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York. The first two, above all, have valuable experience in dealing with the legacy of abuse, and restoring trust in the Church.
And if anyone knows the price to be paid for failure, it is Cardinal O'Malley. I am in Boston at present, and spent Monday being given a tour of Boston College, which has acquired huge swathes of former archdiocesan property, sold to pay the abuse lawsuits. Entering Cardinal Law's former palazzo, I felt like a peasant in Versailles shortly after the French Revolution.
Those five British and North-American church leaders are meeting today with the four bishops of those dioceses under investigation -- Cardinal Seán Brady, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop Dermot Clifford and Archbishop Michael Neary -- at the Congregation of Bishops in Rome.
You can hear the sound of the new policy in the words of the Vatican's spokesman, Fr Lombardi, who yesterday told a Catholic communications conference in Rome that “there was a great loss of trust in the church – partly justified and partly caused by a negative and incomplete portrayal of the problem – but this damage, as the pope has said, can be overcome . . . if we move in the direction of a profound purification and renewal". The sex abuse crisis, he went on, was "a test, a fundamental testing ground, for the credibility of the Church" and its capacity for reform. He then carried on to say that the Church must learn to be as open and transparent in answering questions about its finances, since the Vatican is still popularly believed to be rolling in cash. "A church that is credible before the world is a church that is poor and honest in the way it uses its resources, able to give an account of how it uses them" he said.
To recap: Fr Lombardi appears to be saying that the clerical sex abuse crisis has exposed structural failings in the Church, and that its capacity for repairing those failings is linked to the Vatican's ability to be open and transparent -- in other words, its capacity honestly to face those failings.
Paddy Agnew of the Irish Times sums this up in a headline over his story: "Scandal has made Church 'more open'".
You can see the new policy, too, in the dedicated page of the Vatican's website entitled 'Abuse of Minors. The Church's Response' with links to key documents and speeches.
Of the "pontifical documents" -- that's speeches, homilies, letters and so on by the popes -- on the page, more than a dozen are by Pope Benedict. Just two are by Pope John Paul II. As an illustration of how things have changed, that says it all.