Good pagan that I am, I don't darken the door of my local church from one end of the year to the next. But Christmas is different.
You need the little bit of religion at Christmas time. There's something about going to church on Christmas morning that makes the day complete, even for us atheists and agnostics.

For my teenagers it's a glimpse into a weird world of ritual, of men in frocks and old folk on their knees mumbling strange incantations. At least that's how they see it. It's like stepping into Harry Potter, one of the teens told me last year.

But for me it's a nostalgic journey into the past, evoking deep memories from boyhood days in a small country town, memories of the way we were way back when everything was simpler and somehow more alive.

It all comes flooding back, the early start, the crunch of feet on the icy path, the crib in the nave of the church, the Happy Christmases in the church yard afterwards as neighbors shook hands, and then the quick walk home and opening the door to the smell of the rashers already spitting on the pan.

We used to do midnight Mass when I was a young teenager, but my mother disapproved because a few of the congregation always went straight from the pub to the church and then lacked the requisite reverence.

I can remember at one Christmas Eve midnight Mass the priest intoning the line about the Lamb of God and being answered by a chorus of Baa! Baa! from the boyos in the balcony. A few minutes later someone dropped a bottle of beer at the top of the balcony staircase and it slowly rattled its way down every step to the bottom. The priest paused the ceremony, turned around and glared, and you could have cut the silence with a knife.

We thought it was brilliant drama and wanted to go back the following year. But from then on it was Christmas morning Mass for our family.

Eventually, of course, we all left home and lost our religion. As students in the radical sixties and seventies, all that crazy stuff about the immaculate conception and transubstantiation was too ridiculous to be taken seriously.

But every Christmas, when we all gathered at home, we went to Christmas morning Mass like true believers because it was part of our growing up, part of what we were.

So for old time's sake -- and to give my own kids the experience -- I still insist on going to church on Christmas morning. We don't limit ourselves to the local Catholic Church. The Protestant Church of Ireland service is much better.

Instead of the muttering and moaning of an interminable mass, the Protestant service is all joyful hymns and carols, with a few prayers in between the singing. It's lively and uplifting.

Mind you, the kids this year say they want to go back to the Catholic Church this Christmas. The Mass is much more mysterious, they say. And you can get Communion!

Maybe we'll go back this year. Because the way the Catholic Church is going here, it may not be around much longer. If it's not gone altogether, it could well be reduced to a small rump by the time my kids have kids of their own to bring to church on Christmas morning.

The recent publication of the state commission of inquiry into the behavior of priests and bishops in the Dublin diocese since 1975 has been a tipping point as far as the Catholic Church in Ireland is concerned. The outcome has rocked the church, not just in Dublin but throughout the country.

It is the second inquiry of its kind here, since the accusations about clerical sexual abuse in Ireland started to snowball about 10 years ago. The first was the inquiry in Wexford and that was shocking.

But the scale and depravity and then the cover-up revealed by the Dublin inquiry is far worse. Dozens of priests were implicated, successive bishops knew what was happening, yet it went on and on.

The numerous abusing priests were shifted from one parish to another when complaints arose, leaving them free to abuse again.

The priority of the church was always to protect itself, even if it meant children continued to suffer.

In the Dublin diocese, which is so big that it has an archbishop at the top and auxiliary bishops as well, meetings between the bishops were held on a monthly basis, and it is hard to believe that the problem of abusing priests would not have been discussed.

The report makes clear that all the archbishops over the past 30 years or more knew what was going on, yet did nothing effective to stop it.

The present archbishop is in the clear because of the new procedures put in place in the recent past for protecting children, part of which means immediate reporting of accusations of abuse by priests to the police. That's a big change from previous decades when the church dealt with these matters itself, under canon law.

But the present archbishop's predecessor, still alive but now retired, is implicated in the cover-up, as are the auxiliary bishops who served under him and are now full bishops in other dioceses around Ireland. One of them has already resigned, after a trip to Rome to consult the Pope, and the other three are hanging on by their fingertips.

As I said, this is a tipping point for the Catholic Church in Ireland. It's a crisis that has shaken the Irish Catholic Church to its foundations and damaged its reputation and standing, perhaps permanently.

One indication of the sea change in attitude to the church is the way people here are now questioning everything. Is it right that the local bishop should be the patron of all the Catholic schools in the area if the church cannot be trusted with children? Should people be taking moral guidance from bishops when the culture in the church was corrupt?

The old deference is now completely gone. The Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheal Martin, for example, publicly criticized the failure of the Papal Nuncio to cooperate with the commission of inquiry and provide access to church files, something which the judge who ran the inquiry commented on. It's a long way from the days when government ministers here used to sink to their knees to kiss the bishop's ring.

This end to the deference and respect that used to be shown to the church is not confined to senior figures like government ministers. Ordinary people -- with the exception of the elderly faithful -- have been scathing in TV news interviews not only about how the church behaved in Dublin, but about the decades of orchestrated cover-up.

The cover-up by bishops is seen by most people as being almost as bad as the abuse perpetrated by so many priests because it left those priests free to abuse again.

The media has been full of calls for bishops to resign, an unprecedented change in attitudes here. And it could get worse for the church because the five-year inquiry in the Dublin diocese is unlikely to be the end of it.

Wexford and Dublin have been dealt with. But what about all the other dioceses in the country?

Given the culture of concealment in the Irish Catholic Church over the last few decades, the presumption must be that all the other dioceses will be just as rotten. There is no reason to think that Wexford and Dublin were aberrations and that everywhere else was okay.

Of course the problem with the Catholic Church goes far beyond these latest revelations in Ireland. It goes right back to the life denying, sex denying, guilt laden culture that permeates the whole institution, the lack of women priests, the lack of married male priests, the whole system that shoved young men into seminaries at a very young age.

With minimal contact with girls and their sexual development arrested in early boyhood, is it any wonder that so many of these priests went on to experiment sexually with children, to be child abusers?

You can suppress sex for so long, but eventually, as Freud correctly insists, it will always find a way out in some form, normal or perverted.

Our tragedy in Ireland was that the suppression by the Catholic Church of a normal healthy attitude to sex was worse here than elsewhere. And the consequences, inevitably, have been worse, a terrible price paid by so many abused children here.

That's a big subject and one we will explore in due course in this column. But it's not one for now, a few days before Christmas.

The Christian message in its pure original form is still one of great merit. And the story of the Nativity and the Baby Jesus is still one that connects with children at this time around the world. I can see it in the eyes of my own kids, even though they have been sent to a non-denominational school and educated to be free thinkers.

Like me, there will be a lot of people in Ireland going to other churches this Christmas. And many of those who go to a Catholic Church will be doing so with a heavy heart.