The picture of the Irish bishops gathered in conclave with the Pope in the Vatican just over a week ago summed up what is wrong with the Catholic Church, not just in Ireland but in Rome as well.

There they all were, a large group of elderly male celibates in white dresses smiling grimly for the cameras before they began their two-day discussion on sexuality and abuse.

What's wrong with the picture? Well, for a start there's not a woman in sight.

Nor are there any psychoanalysts or psychiatrists or psychologists or even an alternative therapist or two. Nor are there any ordinary adults who might be able to offer a real opinion on sexuality, speaking from the experience of a normal, well-adjusted person with an active sex life.

Nor are there any parents of abused children. Or even any victims -- adults who were abused by priests when they were kids (and let's face it, there's no shortage of those).

In fact there was no one at all in the room who might have been able to offer a worthwhile view on sexuality and how it emerged in such a perverted form among so many Catholic priests in Ireland, wreaking devastation on so many lives over decades.

Even more telling than the picture of the Irish bishops sitting down for their conference with the Pope was the TV news film we saw here the night before which showed the bishops shortly after they had arrived inside the Vatican.

All decked out in their expensive robes and crosses, they formed a long line and shuffled forward one by one like penitents to kiss the Pope's ring, sinking half way to their knees to do so.

The body language was all squirming embarrassment, mixed with a little preening pride. After all, this was the big time for them, like Oscar night, even if the circumstances were a little uncomfortable.

The Pope had a fixed smile on his face as he greeted them one by one, his cold eyes assessing the miserable creatures who had presided over a system which had brought him so much trouble. It looked like scenes from The Godfather and The Da Vinci Code somehow had got mixed up.

The Goodfellas were lined up to pay homage to the Don, all in their elaborate costumes inside the Vatican. The air was heavy with guilt and foreboding.

Kissing the Pope's ring? That self-abasing ritual sends out completely the wrong message when what these guys should be doing is trying to make the church more relevant in the modern world.

What this Pope needs is sound advice from a wide variety of people, clerical and lay, male and female. What he doesn't need is a roomful of Irish bishops going through the traditional motions.

It's time to dump this kissing of the Pope's ring. And it's way past time to dump the bit where ordinary people fall to their knees to kiss their bishop's ring.

What's all that about, anyway? I don't remember Jesus Christ having a ring and expecting everyone to fall down and kiss it.

As for what a roomful of aging celibates could possibly know about sexuality, your guess is as good as mine. It's worth remembering that most of Christ's 12apostles were married men, and that compulsory celibacy was an invention of the church that came over 1,000 years later, after centuries of married priests and even married Popes.

It was the worst decision the Catholic Church ever made, and the present problems about sexuality stem from that disastrous change.

Celibacy may work for some, but for many others it doesn't. If you take the Freudian view, repressed sexuality will always find a way out, frequently in undesirable ways. Add to that the system that sent young boys from all male schools into all male seminaries and you have a recipe for arrested sexual development and release that puts children at risk.

But the Catholic Church refuses to recognize this. Instead of accepting that the abuse is a consequence of the church's attitude to sexuality, the church sees it as wrongdoing by aberrant priests.

So in Ireland we have had denial, cover-up and abusing priests being moved by bishops from one parish to another when complaints were made. We have had decades of abuse by dozens of priests all over the country.

The appalling saga of abuse was revealed not because of anything the church did but because of the courage of the victims and the judicial inquiries set up by the state. The failure of the Irish bishops, past and some present, which was revealed in the report on the Dublin area, was the immediate reason they had all been summoned to Rome.

The victims -- who were not invited to the meeting -- were hoping for a full apology from the Pope, for an acceptance of some responsibility by the Pope and for a recognition of the trauma they had suffered. What they got was the same old waffle, relayed by the Irish bishops after the two-day meeting.

The Pope put what had happened in Ireland down to "a weakening of faith." If the priests involved had been stronger in their faith they would never have done such terrible things. He also said that "the lack of respect for the human person" in society was one of the causes.

This lame response and the failure to offer an adequate apology angered abuse victims here. They are also angry because the Pope failed to take any responsibility for what happened in the Dublin diocese even in recent decades.

This is significant because it was the Pope, then Cardinal Ratzinger, who as prefect of the all-powerful church committee the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had been Rome's top man for dealing with this stuff since 1981. All cases of abuse worldwide had to be referred to him.

To suggest that he did not know what was happening in Ireland and how the Irish bishops were dealing with it is nonsense. He was part of the culture of cover-up within the church for years.

So there is every reason to think that the Pope is as culpable as the Irish bishops who moved abusing priests around. If he didn't know, he should have known. That was his job.

But getting him to admit that either he or Rome was at fault was never going to happen, because that would open the Vatican to a legal challenge from Irish abuse victims. Any admission of the Vatican's culpability in its directives to bishops on the reporting of abuse complaints could open the floodgates to massive compensation claims.

One particularly nasty suggestion to emerge from Rome over the past week was that the abuse was a peculiarly Irish problem. Given the worrying number of Irish religious who have been involved in abuse in other countries, like the U.S. and Australia, that might seem to have some validity.

But the fundamental problem is not where the abusing clergy are from. It's the warped attitude to sexuality the church has given them.

The truth is that abuse has emerged among priests and brothers in many countries. For example, this weekend the bishops in Germany -- home of the present Pope -- got together for a major press conference to make a public apology for abuse that happened there.

The Pope is due to issue a special message to Irish Catholics within a few weeks. But since he would not agree to allow any of the victims to attend the meeting in Rome, no one is expecting much.

Irish Catholics don't need any empty messages. Words are cheap.

What the Catholic Church needs to do urgently is end celibacy, start ordaining women, allow contraception and generally change its attitude to human sexuality.

Until the church starts treating human sexuality as something healthy and wonderful to be enjoyed and celebrated instead of something dirty and furtive to be denied and hidden, the problem is never going to go away. Either in Ireland or anywhere else.

It's time to get back to the message of Jesus and get rid of all the pomp and ceremony, particularly the ring kissing.