Pope Benedict's Legacy in Ireland

02/12/2013 10:57 am ET | Updated Apr 14, 2013

It is almost impossible for Irish people, whether Catholic or not, to look at the Church, the 'institutional Church' at any rate, without first thinking of the child abuse scandals. Therefore Pope Benedict XVI will be assessed in part by how well, or badly, he dealt with those scandals.

The crisis facing the Church here in Ireland occupied a considerable amount of the Pope's time during his eight years of office, especially following the publication of the Ryan report and the Dublin report in 2009 and the Cloyne report in 2011.

Following the publication of the Ryan report into abuse in mainly Catholic-run industrial schools, he had special meetings with Cardinal Sean Brady and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin.

In February 2010, he met with all the bishops together to discuss the Dublin report and how best Rome could help the Church in Ireland restore its badly battered image.

The following month, Pope Benedict issued a Pastoral Letter to 'the Catholics of Ireland' dealing with the scandals.

In that letter, he outlined what he believed were some of the causes of the scandals, including clericalism, a concern with the reputation of the Church and the avoidance of scandal, failure to apply canon law (something that was pointed out in the Dublin report), poor formation of candidates for the priesthood, and so on.

At the time the Pope was criticised for not blaming the Vatican itself as well and there is no doubt that the Vatican was also guilty of clericalism and for thinking first and foremost about the reputation of the Church, rather than the victims.

However, out of all Vatican officials, the Pope did more than any other to ensure that Rome put in place proper procedures for dealing with the scandals.

For example in 2001, when still head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he issued an instruction that henceforth every diocese was to report every child sex abuse allegation it received against a priest and the Congregation would apply canon law against that priest.

Contrary to popular belief, bishops around the world reported very few cases to the Vatican before that.

Since 2001, hundreds, if not thousands of priests have been 'defrocked' or 'laicised' as a result of their crimes.

This has operated in tandem with civil law. For example, the diocese of Ferns at the last count had referred ten priests to the civil authorities and the same ten to the Vatican.

The Pope's next step was to order an Apostolic Visitation to Ireland (an inspection) headed by four senior Churchmen.

Following that, in January of last year the Pope in effect hand-picked his ambassador, or nuncio to Ireland, Archbishop Charles Brown, who worked with him in CDF for fifteen years.

Archbishop Brown has now chosen his first three bishops -- or more accurately had them approved by Rome -- namely William Crean who has taken over in Cloyne, Brendan Leahy who is going to Limerick, and most importantly of all, Eamon Martin, who will succeed Cardinal Sean Brady in Armagh.

These three, in particular the last, represent a fresh start for the Church in Ireland and more appointments will follow soon.

But the retirement of Pope Benedict also gives an opportunity for a fresh start. His successor is extremely unlikely to be in any way associated with the past handling of the sex abuse scandals. This is crucial.

There will be other opportunities to assess the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI between now and his retirement at the end of the month. But to sum him up, if for Pope John Paul II all the world was a stage, for Benedict the world was a classroom.

Benedict was above all a teacher. That is what he loved to do best, to teach and to write. This probably meant that even if he was in the best of health, he was never going to be a good governor of the Church and therefore the bureaucracy of the Vatican was never going to get the leadership it needed. He did, however, offer clear doctrinal leadership, to the chagrin of some and the delight of others.

It's a pity he never made it to Ireland. When he visited Britain in September 2010 many Irish people got to see him properly for the first time on their TV screens. What we saw entirely belied his stern and authoritarian image.

Had he come here I am convinced that no matter how much controversy there might have been in the lead-up to his visit, he would have won most of us over once he arrived, as he did when he visited Britain.

I hope between now and the end of the month, we will get a more rounded idea of who this man really is and will be able to look past the caricature.

As the Pope himself admits, he had his flaws and he made mistakes, but he was and is undoubtedly a holy man. He should be remembered above all for that.

Cross-posted from the Irish Independent