THE once-solid relationship between the Irish state and the Vatican was rocked yesterday as the Republic absorbed the shockwaves of an unprecedented attack on the Holy See's response to child sex abuse cases by Prime Minister Enda Kenny.
The Taoiseach's verbal broadside, accusing the Vatican of downplaying "the rape and torture of children" and hiding behind its status as a sovereign state with a secrecy-obsessed culture and canon laws, was echoed by widespread demands from Ireland's Catholics that the church leadership comes clean on 17 years of abuse scandals.
The power of the Catholic Church has long been one of the most salient aspects of Irish life. Accorded a special position in the 1937 Irish constitution, the Church and its clergy exercised significant social and political control from the early days of the country's independence in the 1920s right up to the boom years of the Celtic Tiger.
But in his strident, forthright speech to the Irish Parliament, the Dil, on Wednesday night Mr Kenny - a practicising Catholic from the traditionally conservative west of the country - attacked the "dysfunction, disconnection, elitism, the narcissism" that he said dominates the culture within the Vatican. He also spoke of a "frankly brazen disregard" for child protection.
Mr Kenny's comments came during a debate about the Cloyne Report, an investigation into clerical child sex abuse in County Cork. The report documents how bishops in the Cloyne diocese purposely covered up allegations of child abuse by 19 priests, including claims made as recently as three years ago.
Mr Kenny said the report went beyond past revelations on the issue even for a nation now "unshockable when it comes to the abuse of children".
Astonished taxi drivers reportedly pulled off the road to watch the speech on smartphones and victims of clerical sexual abuse cheered a day they thought would never come.
Diarmaid Ferriter, professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin, said: "It's a landmark speech in emphasising that Ireland's historic deference to the Vatican, and to the Catholic Church generally, is over."
Ireland's priests also voiced support. Reverend Tony Flannery, a leader of the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland, said: "The prime minister is a practising Catholic and has a love for the Christian faith. He's given a powerful voice to what we've all been thinking."
The Vatican has yet to respond formally, but yesterday the Archbishop of Dublin called for a full investigation into the workings of every diocese in Ireland.
Dr Diarmuid Martin said: "I'm very disappointed and annoyed. What do you do when you've got systems in place and somebody ignores them?
"What do you do when you have got groups either in the Vatican or in Ireland who try to undermine what is being done or simply refuse to understand what is being done?"Members of the Dil called for diplomatic ties with the Vatican to be cut.
The Vatican, a sovereign state, has refused to co-operate with the inquiry into a criminal conspiracy against children, said Independent John Halligan, who called for the Irish ambassador to Rome to be recalled.
Such calls mirror a shift in Irish attitudes towards the Vatican. Although more than 85 per cent of Ireland describes itself as Catholic, widespread anger at the abuse perpetrated by Irish clergy has grown steadily since 1994, when the cover-up of the actions of paedophile priest Brendan Smyth led to the fall of the Fianna Fail-Labour coalition.
In recent years, the Ryan and Murphy have reports highlighted the shocking scale of abuse by clergy in Catholic schools and institutions in Ireland.
Mr Kenny is the first Irish prime minister to address the Catholic Church's culpability so publicly. If the overwhelmingly positive reaction to his speech is a true barometer, the Church's role in Ireland might never be the same again.