In terms of their shattering impact on a single nation, the Irish child abuse scandals and repeated episcopal cover-ups have been unprecedented, however shocking the occurrences in other countries have been.
In light of this, all 24 of Ireland's active bishops were called to Rome for a meeting with Benedict XVI on 15-16 February. The results of their discussions were to be embodied in the Pope's Apostolic Letter to the Irish, due for release in mid-March.
The Vatican response was prompted by two reports: The Ryan Report, released last May, which detailed child abuse in Catholic schools throughout Ireland; and The Murphy Commission Report, released last November, which detailed abuse cases in the Dublin Archdiocese from 1975 to 2004.
The Pope's call for all of Ireland's bishops to join him in Rome for discussions, announced on 20 January, was described by Vatican Radio as an 'unprecedented move'.
Benedict had already met on 11 December 2009 with Cardinal Sean Brady, Archbishop of Armagh and President of the Irish Episcopal Conference, and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin. They discussed the Murphy Commission Report and its appalling and scandalous findings.
Vatican Radio commented that the Ryan and Murphy reports had 'rocked the Catholic Church on the island nation to its very core,' particularly the second document with its emphasis on the persistent failure of bishops to adequately respond to blatant abuse allegations.
During their February meeting with the Pope, according to a Vatican communique, the Irish bishops 'spoke frankly of the sense of pain and anger, betrayal, scandal and shame expressed to them on numerous occasions by those who had been abused. There was a similar sense of outrage reflected by laity, priests and religious in this regard'.
They added that 'while there is no doubt that errors of judgment and omissions stand at the heart of the crisis, significant measures have now been taken to ensure the safety of children and young people.'
The bishops underlined their commitment to cooperate with the authorities and the Church's National Board for Safeguarding Children so as to 'guarantee that the Church's standards, policies and procedures represent best practice in this area.'
In his address to the bishops Benedict said that the sexual abuse of children and young people was 'not only a heinous crime, but also a grave sin which offends God and wounds the dignity of the human person created in His image.'
While noting that the current painful situation would not be resolved quickly, he challenged the bishops to address the problems of the past with determination and resolve, and to face the present crisis with honesty and courage.
Benedict also pointed to the more general crisis of faith affecting the Church and linked that to the lack of respect for the human person and how the weakening of faith had been a significant contributing factor in the phenomenon of the sexual abuse of minors.
He stressed the need for a deeper theological reflection on the whole issue, in particular remarking that Vatican II's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, had been 'totally misrepresented in some of the moral teaching and attitudes that came into theology.'
He also called for an improved human, spiritual, academic and pastoral preparation both of candidates for the priesthood and religious life and of those already ordained and professed.
On their return to Ireland after the meeting in Rome, many of the bishops offered their impressions.
Bishop Martin Drennan of Galway said, 'What I took back from Rome after the two-day visit last week can be summed up in three phrases: face the past with honesty, the present with courage, the future with hope.'
Bishop Michael Smith of Meath described the encounter with the Pope as 'the most open, honest and engaged meeting that I have attended.' He said it indicated how seriously the Pope viewed the sex abuse scandal.
'The Holy Father and nine senior cardinals and archbishops from the Curia were present for the meeting ... By his and their presence, they wished to emphasise the seriousness with which they view this evil which affects the life of the Church in Ireland and society worldwide. The meeting began with each of the Irish bishops giving a five minute presentation [on] different aspects of the issue.
'In the afternoon, the cardinals and archbishops from the Curia responded, taking up a number of the points made in the morning presentations. Pope Benedict did likewise. When these were completed, discussion began on the draft of the letter that Pope Benedict will send to the Irish Church in the next few weeks. He listened attentively to comments and suggestions made by all present and will take these into account in finalising his letter.'
Archbishop Martin, several of whose immediate Dublin predecessors had been guilty of inexcusable cover-ups, said on 21 February that the Church must do penance for the clerical abuse of children as documented in the Murphy Report.
'This year is a moment in which the whole Church in Dublin is called to do penance and seek reconciliation concerning terrible facts about the abuse of children and how they were responded to. We have to reject any temptation to think that renewal in the Church can be achieved without recognising the hurt of the past, the damage done to innocent children, and how that damage was ignored.'