When I was editor of the Catholic Herald, I was often asked why I seemed no more than lukewarm in my praise for the late Cardinal Basil Hume. The saintly man had single-handedly shrugged off the image of feckless Irish drunks that clung to left-footers over here. Under his tutelage, the fragrant Ann Widdecombe, the Duchess of Kent and other members of the establishment had seen the light and converted. So why didn't I join in the love-fest?
Because of the men and women who would write to me, or ring me, or even - in one case - visit me at the Herald offices with horrible chronicles of abuse suffered when they were young altarboys or convent schoolgirls. Their torturers were priests who took advantage of the children's innocence, secure in the knowledge that their crimes would go unpunished. For that is what happened, time and time again. The children would keep silent - sometimes for years - and finally confide to their parents about the shaming incidents. The parents reported the abuse to their parish priest or diocesan bishop. And waited for justice. In vain. The priest would disappear from circulation, moved by his boss to a distant parish where he was an unknown quantity, and could therefore continue hunting new victims without compunction.
Everyone in the Catholic hierarchy - yes, even Cardinal Hume - went along with this. Having infiltrated the establishment, the cardinal seemed to have embraced its cherished dictum - never apologise, never explain. It might work for politicians, but not for churchmen who daily preach the importance of truth, innocence and humility. In the end, it took Hume's successor - and a huge scandal two years ago - to save the Church with an independent inquiry, led by Lord Nolan, into allegations of priestly child abuse. This public mea culpa reassured the faithful that clerics cared about their welfare - and not just their own colleagues' reputations.
America's bishops were obviously not paying attention: they continued to ignore sexual abusers in their ranks and have been yanked to Rome for a public scourging at the hands of John Paul II. American Catholics may view this as too little, too late, and wreak their own, typically American revenge: sue the dog-collared men for emotional damage.
Over here, thank God, the damage-limitation exercise has already been carried out. No thanks to Cardinal Hume.