When Pope Francis replaced the holy but ineffectual Pope Benedict in 2013, the Vatican hoped it had the measure of a global child-sex abuse scandal that had shaken its foundations for two decades.

Regrettably, the lesson of the Pope’s tenure so far is that it did not. Two members of a commission he established to advise the Church on child protection have resigned, complaining that Pope Francis’s good intentions have not been matched by action. He has had to apologise for inexplicably denouncing abuse survivors who accused the Church of a cover-up in Chile.

Following a trouble-shooting inquiry by Archbishop Charles Scicluna at the Pope’s behest, five Chilean bishops have resigned and some face prosecution. In France, an archbishop and a cardinal will go on trial next year accused of failing to report sexual abuse.

In New Jersey, in the US, it has emerged that two dioceses reached secret financial settlements with men allegedly abused by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a papal confidante who was forced last month to retire from the College of Cardinals. In Australia, the Archbishop of Adelaide also resigned in July after being convicted of a sex abuse cover-up. Cardinal Pell, a senior Vatican official will soon stand trial in Australia for similar reasons.

Bishops and cardinals: the rot extends to the very top. Pope Francis responded last week to the growing Vatican sex abuse row cover-ups by Church authorities in Pennsylvania in the US with a letter of apology to over a billion Catholic faithful around the world. The three-page letter, addressed to “the people of God” and asking all the world’s Catholics to help uproot “this culture of death”, was released by the Vatican in seven languages.

This followed the publication of a grand jury report (an investigative body that sat for two years and had access to 500,000 secret Church documents) on six Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania  detailing sexual abuse by some 300 “predator priests” against 1,000 children over the last 70 years. The grand jury report revealed the failure of the Church hierarchy to respond to their complaints, many too harrowing to reprint here.

Publication of the report was delayed after a challenge – supported by the Church hierarchy – from two dozen clergy and former clergy who had argued that it violated their constitutional rights. The state supreme court ruled the public had a right to see it, but the names of those who objected to the findings would be redacted pending a hearing next month.

One senior Church official named in the report is Cardinal Donald Wueri, now Archbishop of Washington, who disputes claims that he helped to protect abusive priests when he was Bishop of Pittsburg.

Catholic Ireland is dying. Its iron grip on the Irish imagination has been broken. This is only partly because of secularisation

A campaign has been launched to allow thousands of potential victims to bring civil and criminal cases after the grand jury found that abuse was systematically hidden by senior clergy and the Vatican for seven decades. A third of the clerical perpetrators have died and others were allowed to retire with pensions or continue their ministries elsewhere.

The cover-up meant that prosecutors lost the chance to bring abusive priests to court under the statute of limitations, which means a case cannot be prosecuted after the victim reaches the age of 50. Child victims cannot sue for compensation once they turn 30.

The scale of the alleged abuse uncovered, and the efforts made to hide it, are astounding, even if the pattern is numbingly familiar from earlier scandals. Abusive clerics are a worldwide phenomenon. Only two weeks ago, we heard from an inquiry that Britain’s two greatest Catholic schools, run by Benedictine monks – Downside and Ampleforth, which many Maltese boys have attended – had harboured sex abusers for decades.   

The Pope’s letter came just before his visit to Ireland last weekend. He no doubt reflected while there on the reasons why Irish Catholicism has all but collapsed since Pope John Paul II visited in 1979 and celebrated Mass in Dublin before 1,250,000 people. Last Sunday there were only about a fifth of that figure. Having been among the most devout nations in the world for about 1,500 years, now only just over half the population identifies itself as Catholic.

Catholic Ireland is dying. Its iron grip on the Irish imagination has been broken. This is only partly because of secularisation. It is essentially the historical clerical child-abuse revelations that have aroused real hatred and disgust. The sense of betrayal by the Irish Catholic Church and its staggering hypocrisy have proved toxic. The abuse scandals have left an indelible stain.      

The Pope wrote in his letter: “With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realising the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives.”

The Pope’s actions on child sex abuse must start to match his words. It can take many years for sex abuse victims to summon the courage to speak out. Having done so, they deserve more than an apology. If the Catholic Church wishes to show it is at last in earnest about rooting out the scourge that threatens what remains of its moral authority, its leaders in Pennsylvania (where the Bishop of Pittsburg has reacted by stating “there was no cover-up”, when the evidence suggests otherwise) and elsewhere appear to be in denial. Church leaders must switch from obstructing justice to demanding it.

The charismatic Pope Francis took the opportunity in Ireland to acknowledge the extent of the cover-ups perpetrated by his cardinals and to apologise unreservedly to abuse victims in Ireland. But in the meantime, the brother of a victim who committed suicide in Pennsylvania asks: “Why aren’t these people in prison?” It is a good question, so far unanswered.

For too long the Catholic Church has prioritised its reputation over the well-being of its flock. That reputation may be beyond repair. The Church faces a crisis that is institutional, global and existential. The rot has spread to the top. Pope Francis must get a grip on its culture and the causes that underlie it through positive action, not words, or the Church will be decimated.