DUBLIN, Ireland ― As the few remaining faithful in this once mass-going nation set out for midnight services on a freezing cold Christmas Eve, two bishops announced their resignation, bringing to four the number forced to step down since they were named in a report on the cover-up of sexual abuse by pedophile priests in Dublin.

The bishops are the latest casualties of a civil war within the purple-clad ranks of the once-dominant Irish Catholic Church hierarchy that could have ramifications in the Vatican itself.

Bishops Eamonn Walsh and Raymond Field offered their resignations to Pope Benedict on Christmas Eve only after fighting a rearguard action against the Archbishop of Dublin, Dairmuid Martin, who has pressurized them publicly and privately to quit. They are accused of being part of a culture of silence and denial about abusive priests that is not peculiar only to Ireland but is worldwide.

The scandal has highlighted the role of the Vatican where this practice of “see no evil” was established by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with an emphasis on protecting church financial assets.

Outrage in Ireland over the actions of individual priests and bishops has consequently also been directed towards the Vatican. This has wider implications for the influence of the Catholic Church in a country where two decades ago there was 90 percent regular mass attendance.

Bitter criticisms of the Vatican and the papal nuncio — both declined to even respond to a letter from the Dublin Archdiocese Commission of Investigation headed by Judge Yvonne Murphy that drew up the report on sexual abuse — have become the staple diet of current affairs programs on radio and television.

The infighting within the ranks of Ireland’s Catholic hierarchy, which consists of one cardinal, three archbishops and 24 bishops, became public after Bishop Walsh sent a letter to all priests in his area of the Dublin archdiocese claiming that Archbishop Martin had expressed full confidence in him at a meeting of clergy in a Dublin hotel. The archbishop’s spokeswoman retorted that while he had confidence in Walsh’s ministry, he and other bishops named in the report had questions of accountability to answer.

Walsh protested that it would be unjust to force him to resign as he had done no wrong. However in a joint resignation statement with Bishop Field, who also denied wrongdoing, just before midnight on Dec. 24, Walsh expressed the hope that on Christmas Day their action might help to bring Christ’s pace and reconciliation to the victims and survivors of child sexual abuse to whom they again apologized.

In another public display of the turmoil within the Catholic Church leadership, Cardinal Sean Brady criticized the indifference shown by the Vatican and Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza, to the inquiry. “It is unfortunate the requests from the commission didn’t get a reply,” he said. “They should have.” In the careful language of the princes of the Church this was tantamount to a demarche.

The Murphy commission investigated 320 allegations against a sample of 46 out of 183 priests from 1975 to 2004. It found that several cardinals and bishops protected criminal priests while taking no action to protect children.

A number of priests have gone public with complaints of a witch-hunt against clerics and have protested at the pressure from Archbishop Martin on bishops to resign. Martin, who was sent from Rome in 2003 to handle the growing scandal, apologized at Christmas midnight mass in Dublin to priests who were suffering the consequences of his actions.

One of the five working bishops named in the Murphy report, Bishop Martin Drennan of Galway, who served in the Dublin diocese in the 1990s, has not declared his intention to resign but is now under intense pressure to do so. Walsh was the bishop of the Ferns Diocese and Field was president of the hierarchy’s Commission for Justice and Social Affairs.

The woes of the Church in “Holy Ireland” were compounded by a fire which broke out in St Mel’s Cathedral in Longford after midnight mass. By Christmas morning the 170-year-old building was reduced to a shell of its former glory — a metaphor for the condition of the Irish Catholic church itself.

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