Revelations that the Catholic Church and the British government covered up the involvement of Fr James Chesney in the 1972 Claudy bombings in Northern Ireland are shocking enough. (The police concluded at the time that Chesney was an IRA leader, while the then Irish primate, Cardinal Conway, agreed that he was "a very bad man".)
Worse is that the Catholic hierarchy then allowed Chesney to continue as a cleric, transferring him from Derry to Donegal, in the Republic of Ireland.
The current primate, Cardinal Sean Brady, and the Bishop of Derry, Seamus Hegarty, have issued a statement saying it is "shocking that a priest should be suspected of involvement in such violence".
But Brady, in particular, has appeared to be more concerned about protecting what remains of the Church's tattered reputation in Ireland. "The Catholic Church did not engage in a cover up," he said yesterday. "The Church was approached by the secretary of state, investigated and reported back. I don't see that as a cover-up."
Really? As the Irish Examiner put it:
Mary Hamilton, who ran a hotel in Claudy and was in the town that day, said: "I would like to see the Catholic Church coming forward and telling us why they felt Fr Chesney's life was more important than nine people in the village."
I saw Brady on Sky News, facing some admittedly tough questioning about the ombudsman's report. The interviewer, Colin Brazier, began by asking him just how many Catholic priests were also terrorists in the 1970s. But after a while Brazier began to look puzzled. All Brady needed to do was state unequivocally that it was utterly wrong for a suspected terrorist to carry on ministering to the faithful as a Catholic priest. This, it seemed, he could not bring himself to do.
Instead, the impression was of yet more weasel words from Brady, who faced calls to resign earlier this year over his -- admittedly minor -- role in a process that left a notorious paedophile priest free to attack other children.
Evasive, inarticulate, he came across as living proof that, as the Augustinian priest Father Iggy O'Donovan said only days ago, "in recent decades the ranks of the Irish episcopate has been manned with second-raters, rather than men of vision and imagination".
On what happened -- or rather, didn't happen -- to Fr Chesney, Brady bleats: "The Church was put in an impossible situation. From this distance, I cannot judge whether it was right or wrong."
If he genuinely can't make that call, he should go right now. The Catholic Church can never recover respect, still less its former moral authority, while led by such pathetic, cowardly men. To call them second-raters is a compliment they don't deserve.