Last of the Cardinal Sins: Britain Is Preparing for the Beatification of John Henry Newman and the First Diplomatic Visit by Any Pope. Yet the Scandal of Church Cover-Up for Paedophile Priests Is Threatening to Become the Gravest Crisis in the Modern History of Catholicism

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One summer afternoon in the late 1990s, my wife and I were by an Italian poolside in the Alban Hills, south of Rome. We watched a group of touring British choirboys, aged ten to 13, relaxing in the water after performing a sung Mass at St Peter's Basilica. Frolicking with them was Joe Jordan, a seminarian who had accompanied them, uninvited, from Rome. After watching his behaviour, involving boisterous tickling and handy-horseplay, my wife, who was a teacher in London schools for 14 years, said: "That young man has a problem: I wouldn't let him near a child unsupervised."

The following year Jordan was ordained a priest and appointed to a parish in Wales. In 2000 he was sentenced at Cardiff Crown Court to eight years' imprisonment for sexual abuse of minors in Doncaster and Barry, near Cardiff. When I asked Jordan's seminary rector why it had taken my wife a few minutes to identify what he and his colleagues failed to recognise over a period of five years, he said: "Oh, Joe was a devout man. There was no indication of any kind of problem." Jordan's hidden problem was not only his own, and that of the boys he abused, but a problem with recruitment, screening and formation of Catholic priests the world over. Now it is a problem of the Pope's.

Pope Benedict XVI will be coming to Britain this September. For a man of 82, he has a light step. Yet for the remainder of his papacy he will be travelling the world weighed down like Marley's ghost with the invisible chains and burdens of an agonising crisis. The scandal of the world's Catholic paedophile priests may become the greatest catastrophe to afflict the Church of Rome since the Reformation.

Benedict's state visit will take him to Holy-rood, where he will be received by the Queen, whose ancestor Henry VIII founded English Protestantism. The true purpose of his trip, however, is pastoral. At an open-air Mass at Coventry Airport, he will bless the scant relics of a remarkable Englishman--the Victorian spiritual leader Cardinal John Henry Newman. Benedict is to beatify England's most celebrated convert to Catholicism, the penultimate step towards sainthood. The world of English-speaking Catholics will be watching the televised ceremony enthralled; but the Pope is unlikely to seek from the cardinal's extensive writings answers to urgent questions about the dysfunctional Catholic priesthood. Yet perhaps he should.

In 1845, aged 44, Newman left the Anglican ministry for Rome. His conversion--some Protestants called it a "perversion"--rocked the country. He was accused of being a liar, an apostate who had betrayed family, religion and nation to embrace the "Whore of Babylon". Not until he explained himself in his classic Apologia pro vita sua ("A defence of one's life") did he shake off imputations against his honesty.

Newman's reputation as a literary and theological great continued to burgeon after his death. James Joyce thought him England's greatest prose writer. The circuit of his written output is prodigious: theology, philosophy, poetry (including "The Dream of Gerontius", later set to music by Elgar), church history, sermons in their hundreds, fiction (three novels), hymns (including "Lead, Kindly Light"). His letters alone fill 32 fat volumes. His intellectual legacy ranges far beyond religion: his Idea of a University remains the most powerful critique of the ideal of tertiary education across many cultures. The late Edward Said believed that Newman had the key to the independence of university education even in Islamic states.

Newman's greatest gift to the Catholic priest-hood today, however, is the example he gave of living a celibate life while enjoying a permanent and affectionate companionship. His intimate friendship with Father Ambrose St John, with whom he was buried, has often been interpreted as a gay relationship. Whatever the case, the significance of their intimacy was its maturity--the mutual support of friends engaged in pressured pastoral and literary lives. …